Julia Gytri and Avi Amon Talk The O'Neill, The White City and Setting Murder to Music

Julia Gytri and Avi Amon, attendees of the Eugene O'Neill National Music Theater Conference, chat with Playbill.com about their new musical The White City. 

Julia Gytri
Julia Gytri

*

Julia Gytri and Avi Amon joined forces in 2011 to create The White City, a new musical that was a finalist for the 2014 Larson Grant and was recently workshopped at the 2014 Eugene O'Neill National Music Theater Conference under the direction of Tim Seib and musical direction of Kenneth Gartman.

Here's how the production is billed: "Chicago, in 1893. The city hosts the World's Columbian Exposition. Change is palpable: all in attendance hope to propel society into a shining new era. We follow Lucy, a rambunctious sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill's Wild West, as she explores the fair, thrilled by the fast-paced modernity of city life.

"But trouble simmers beneath the façade of the shimmering 'White City' when young women begin to go missing, as Henry Howard Holmes, a local doctor, exploits the innovations presented at the fair for his own demented purposes.

"Loosely based on the true story of America's first recognized serial killer, The White City explores all of the delightful (and deadly) possibilities that accompany the introduction of new technology.” Gytri and Amon earned masters degrees in The Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and recently debuted their one-act musical, Step on a Crack, in March 2014 through the Prospect Theatre Company.

The writing duo spoke with Playbill.com to share their insights on musical theatre, The White City and their collaboration.

Can you discuss the process of musicalizing The White City?
Avi Amon: Well, we have been working on it for two years. We started off by finding moments that could be turned into song.

Julia Gytri: It is very dramatic material and lends itself to music easily.

What is the story about?
AA: Just so we're clear, it's not an adaptation of 'Devil in the White City;' it is only based on the same historical figure. Historical figures are public domain.

Avi Amon

JG: In our show, we're in turn-of-the-century Chicago, at a time when technology was booming and the world was changing and progressing at an alarming rate, and here's this guy, taking all of this new, innovative stuff and using it to kill people. It was mostly a financial thing for him. He was extremely rich. He would take out insurance policies on people and turn in bodies once he killed them. Then he'd take the bodies, articulate the skeletons and sell them off to medical schools.

AA: But he's really only a part of our story. Another portion of it is about the World's Fair, and what was going on there, how it represents the future. Up against that is Lucy, who is part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which, for us, represents the past, a different way of life.

It's kind of coming-of-age story for her. She is dealing with deciding to stay with the people who raised her in this old-fashioned environment or doing what she really wants to do, which is move forward. Throw the serial killer in there, and we see that this future Lucy wants to choose is potentially incredibly dangerous.

Is it challenging to put stories of these different characters together into one musical?
AA: Yeah, it is a lot of material.

JG: So many storylines. We do our best to be economical and choose what is most important to us and to the story that we are trying to tell.

How did you pick which materials to use?
JG: Well, before we started, we researched. Everywhere. Everything. So much research. And at first, we were very intent on pulling as much from primary sources as we could. Dr. Holmes had three wives, all at the same time, and kept them in different places. That was our way in. Those women had no idea he was doing what he was doing, and that was fascinating to us.

From the beginning we wanted them to play a large role in the piece. And then there was a fourth woman who became Lucy, our main character. She's completely fictional, but she started out being based on a historical character. The more we wrote her, the more we realized she needed to be someone we could live with in our minds, and the more okay we became with having her be entirely of our own creation.

It ultimately serves the narrative better. Every now and then, we'll get an email, or an off-hand comment about some of the show's inaccuracies, and my response is always, "We're telling a story, not writing a history channel special. This is music theatre and I'm the writer. I'm allowed to make things up.”

Can you discuss your collaboration? Who decides on the content?
AA: Both of us. It is very equal.

JG: I write the book and lyrics. Avi does the music. But most of our time together in the room is not actually spent writing songs. We talk about where it is going. What if this happened? What if that happened? How do we make sense of this?

AA: What do you want to eat for dinner?

JG: Exactly.

What drew you to musical theatre?
JG: Neither of us started out in theatre. We both started out in music.

AA: Music always has drama in it. I guess at this point of my life I am interested in physically applying it in a dramatic context.

JG: I love great stories and ideas. Trying to make drama and music work together is a complex, beautiful puzzle. You become obsessed.

Who are your musical theatre influences?
AA: Adam Guettel ( Floyd Collins), West Side Story. And plenty of non-musical theatre composers. Ravel, Dvorak, Alan Jackson — all the greats!

JG: Leonard Bernstein. I love Stephen Sondheim. Everything Lin-Manuel Miranda does. We also have so many talented friends in this community of musical theatre composers- our peers are incredibly talented and inspiring.

Stephen Sondheim said, "If you work at the piano you are limited by your own technique. Do you agree?
AA: Yeah, sometimes you can be. I think one of the most liberating things you can do is write music that you can't play. I cannot play most of our music. But the technique you have is not the technique you will have for the rest of your life. You will always adapt.

What do you hope to accomplish at the O'Neill?
AA: The first goal we have is to see everything we wrote from start to finish. It was very painful to watch. It was long, because we wrote the show in pieces that we'd never seen together at the same time.

JG: But now, I think the goal is to figure out how we can throw out what we don't need, add what we do need, restructure and reshape it.

AA: We want to make it the story we are trying to tell and not get lost in the sheer amount of material we've produced over the last two years. We went to grad school at NYU, this was our masters thesis. We saw it abridged at NYU.

JG: With a lot of doubling from the cast.

AA: Just a taste.

JG: This is the main course.

What do you think of the audience that came to see The White City reading At the O'Neill?
AA: Thankfully, they were there giving us a lot of information. I mean, sometimes it is helpful to see which jokes are landing, what kind of music is having effect on people. Sometimes it is not helpful because they are seeing something that is in development, not a finished product. A lot of things they are thinking are wrong are the same things we are already trying to figure out how to rewrite while they're still watching the rest of the show.

JG: I love positive and negative feedback, but either way, it has to be specific. Hearing "That was great!” or "I hated it!” goes in one ear and out the other, because I can't take those comments and use them to better the work. But the moment it gets specific, I'm all ears. It's not productive life practice to present problems without also having ideas for ways to fix them.