Brooklyn Creators Put Their Hearts Into New Musical

Special Features   Brooklyn Creators Put Their Hearts Into New Musical
For a time, composer Mark Schoenfeld — a tried and true Brooklynite — lived on the streets of his city. He scraped by singing on the corners of its famous avenues; using what little money his talents collected him to buy food and the necessities of life.
Eden Espinosa in rehearsal for Brooklyn the Musical
Eden Espinosa in rehearsal for Brooklyn the Musical Photo by Morgan Allen

His experiences and musical prowess will soon be on display at the Plymouth Theatre, where the musical he has written with Barri McPherson, Brooklyn the Musical, begins previews Sept. 23.

McPherson and Schoenfeld share far more than the theatre piece they have created with the help of producer-director Jeff Calhoun (Big River) and producer-music supervisor John McDaniel ("The Rosie O'Donnell Show"). The pair worked together briefly years ago when Schoenfeld, after hearing McPherson sing at a Big Band concert in New England, asked her to record one of his songs. They worked in a recording studio for a single day, promising each other they would work together again in the future.

Nine years later as McPherson was on her way to a private party she was to perform at in Brooklyn Heights, the sounds of a street singer caught the wind and, more importantly, her ear. It was Mark Schoenfeld, whose song she had recorded years ago.

McPherson swept Schoenfeld up and brought him to her home and welcomed him into her family. The songs they began writing together during that time, initially intended for McPherson to perform, have become the framework for a new Broadway musical, featuring one of musical theatre's rising stars, Eden Espinosa, in the role of Brooklyn, a street singer who shares the name of New York City's hip outer borough.

All who are involved with production, especially the small cast, have strong feelings about the show and its creators. "I think musical theatre is a lot luckier because we found them, that stuff would have been wasted, I feel honored that we get to sing it," Karen Olivo told Playbill On-Line at a Sept. 9 open rehearsal for the show.

Olivo is a Rent alumnus who portrays Faith, one of the five street-singer characters that comprise the core of the show. "I think everyone's going to want them to start writing musicals for them," the actress said.

The cast also inclues Kevin Anderson (Sunset Boulevard, Death of a Salesman), Dreamgirls Tony-winner Cleavant Derricks, and Ramona Keller (Caroline, or Change), with Manoel Felciano, Caren Lyn Manuel, Julie Reiber, Horace V. Rogers, and Haneefah Wood.

Derricks' journey to the production has been a rapid one.

“Two weeks ago I was in California minding my business when a producer called me and asked me if he could come up and pitch the show,“ the actor said. “I said 'this is a little strange', but when he got there he had such enthusiasm and such a love for the show that it struck me. Anybody who has the kind of love this man had, I've got to investigate it.”

David Jennings, the actor who first portrayed Street Singer, the role Derricks will create on Broadway, was forced out of the production “due to surgery that required additional recovery time”, according to a press announcement. Jennings played the role in early workshops as well as at a try-out production earlier this year in Denver. Derricks was no stranger to the material, however.

“The first time I heard about this show was five years ago [when] my brother did a workshop in California," he said. “I've always wanted to come back to New York with something, I felt that this is it, the way that everything worked out, this has to be the one, and I cannot tell you, these last two weeks…there's a lot of dialogue I've had to learn, but it's been some of the best two weeks that I've had in a long, long, long time. It's good to be here.”

The show itself, as described by director Calhoun, asks the audience to join the cast as they create a “sidewalk fairy tale,” whisking you to and from locales such as Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, all while remaining on a solitary street corner in Brooklyn.

The production's costume designer, Tobin Ost, revealed that “all materials used to build the costumes had to have a history or at least a legitimacy on the street — most were quite literally taken from gutters, dumpsters, and so on.”

Such practices are somewhat uncommon in the glittering bright lights of Broadway, but that's just how the cast wants it.

“I take every experience in theatre as learning and I have to say that I just worked with three geniuses: Jeanine Tesori, George Wolfe, and Tony Kushner are geniuses in their own right and I so admired just watching them,” said Ramona Keller, of her recent run in Tesori and Kushner's Caroline, or Change. “Then to come here to this, it's not that much different because the genius is just a different type of genius. The things that they have created visually in this show are going to blow people away, to see the things that we've done with trash. It's really going to blow them away. [Caroline and Brooklyn are] two totally different pieces, but at the same time, they're both art pieces.”

Despite the fact that everyone involved with Brooklyn may be rolling around in some of the city's finest refuse, their conviction and commitment to the project remains sky high.

“I think that we are very, very spoiled and lucky to be in this working environment,” said Eden Espinosa. “Everyone creatively is the same from the workshop and everyone is really invested in this piece, it's not just a job they were hired out for. They really believe in it and therefore it comes through in the piece.”

Espinosa enjoyed recent attention due to her powerhouse performance as Idina Menzel's standby in the hit musical, Wicked. She has been associated with Brooklyn since its first workshop and has contributed to the crafting of her character, who, in one of the show's sub-plots, comes to the city in search of both fame and the father she never knew.

According to John McDaniel, the show's producer/music supervisor/arranger/orchestrator, “It's a very 'up' gang. It's a very fun place. It doesn't feel like we're coming to work, it does feel like we come to play. We have such respect for the creativity of everyone and everyone's creativity is welcome, so it's been a very positive place to create the show.”

Brooklyn begins previews at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre on Sept. 23 with performances Monday-Saturday at 8:00 PM, with a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. The production officially opens on Oct. 26, performing Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM.

Tickets are available by calling Tele-Charge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 432-7250. Visit for more information.

Kevin Anderson (left), Cleavant Derricks, Ramona Keller, and Karen Olivo in rehearsal for <i>Brooklyn the Musical</i>
Kevin Anderson (left), Cleavant Derricks, Ramona Keller, and Karen Olivo in rehearsal for Brooklyn the Musical Photo by Morgan Allen
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