Sometimes the best way to move forward is by looking back. As theatre returns to New York, many theatre creatives are reengaging with their craft, rediscovering themselves artistically as they step back into creative practices that were on pause. While it can be daunting, the process also allows artists to reconnect with their roots, reflecting on the past successes, challenges, and periods of growth.
Which is exactly what musical theatre writer Ryan Scott Oliver and theatre photographer Matthew Murphy did mid-pandemic. With the theatre shutdown and ample time, the husbands revisited their seminal creative collaboration, the song cycle 35MM: A Musical Exhibition, nearly a decade after its debut. The result was a companion album called 35MM: A Musical Exhibition in Focus, which offers a thorough deep dive into the piece’s inspiration and creation.
Presented as a multimedia theatrical experience, 35MM is a concept song cycle with Murphy’s photos inspiring music for Oliver and in turn, music inspiring photos. The stories featured are dark, imaginative, and far-reaching, ranging from the revenge plot of a prom queen hopeful to a vampire love story.
Debuting in 2012 in a concert presentation at Brooklyn’s Galapagos Art Space, the production starred a murderers row of talent—Alex Brightman, Lindsay Mendez, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Betsy Wolfe, and Ben Crawford—who all would go on to take Broadway by storm in the years to come.
Likewise, both Oliver and Murphy’s careers have skyrocketed in the time since the project’s debut. Oliver has become one of the leading voices in contemporary musical theatre, writing shows such as Darling, Jasper in Deadland, and the upcoming musical adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He’s also launched the performer training program Actor Therapy with 35MM alum Lindsay Mendez and has frequently performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below (his next show, Monday the 13th, is set to play the venue September 13). Meanwhile, Murphy has become an in-demand Broadway photographer—creating production photos, key art, and more for the theatre industry—and has an upcoming book with Andrew Norlan, When the Lights Are Bright Again: Letters and Images of Loss, Hope, and Resilience from the Theater Community, set to publish in November.
Still, the song-cycle and its album remain a point of pride for the duo, a piece which marked a turning point in their careers. Mid-pandemic, with the theatre’s return on the horizon, Oliver and Murphy sat down with Playbill to discuss 35MM and In Focus and reflect on the song cycle’s impact on their career.
As a piece, 35MM has taken on a life of its own, amassing popularity online before becoming a frequently performed piece regionally and in universities. But to start from the beginning, how did this song cycle come to be?
Ryan Scott Oliver: It began almost 11 years ago when [Matt and I] met. I was working on a couple of other shows, and they were larger in scope—shows that I had hoped would have a larger life. So, of course, there's a lot of development, and that was very frustrating. I was waiting for my life to begin a little bit, like Rapunzel in Tangled. [Laughs] At the same time, I had just finished grad school, and I was really becoming obsessed with story structure and telling stories. I think part of the problem with a lot of the song cycles that came before it was that they were sort of like “I'm 20 years old and living in New York and here's my boyfriend.” But I wanted to tell short stories, the way you'd find in a book. So that basically was the seed for creating the musical.
People were like, “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing it?” and “It's with your boyfriend? That's so weird.” It just goes to show you that sometimes those delightful, strange, and seemingly misguided ideas can actually become something really, really special.
Matthew Murphy: And at that point, for me, I was just starting out as a photographer. I basically picked up a camera maybe two years before that, and really was kind of honing my production photography work. But at the same time, I was still in this really exploratory phase of asking, “What are some cool artistic projects that I can do with friends?” I was in Montana for the summer—I would just grab a couple of my friends, and we would go to a graveyard or random construction lot and just create an image based on an idea in my head. A lot of the photos [I created then] didn't have a home [before the project]. I think what's always been really fun about my relationship to 35MM is that, because a lot of the photos were already created before the songs came around, it really allowed me to kind of step back and just be a fangirl for the whole process.
Ryan mentioned wanting to make a song cycle in the form of short stories. But that is just a structure. Within that, the sky is the limit. How did you narrow the project down to this concept of pairing photography with music?
MM: I feel like it started just as individual songs, right? When “The Seraph” happened, you didn’t think it was for a project called 35MM?
RSO: No, but very quickly after that, I remember I came to your apartment, and I asked what do you think about doing this.
When we first had the idea, I remember thinking, “Oh God, everyone is going to think it's Sunday in the Park with George.” I'm a Sondheim fanatic, and for me, I needed a way to put my fandom of Sondheim to the side so that I could discover myself. With Assassins being sort of more than a song cycle but still a series of vignettes and stories, I thought how can I put that fandom into an expression of my love for what has come before me? I think when artists are transitioning from developing their craft to finding their voice, there's sort of a grieving period of going from a fan into an artist in your own right. In many ways, it was sort of like a big punctuation mark on my early days and then moving forward. It also speaks to the variety of genres in the show—I wanted to let everyone know all the stuff I can do.
MM: I feel like what's amazing about him is that he’s like, “I want to do a song cycle based on photographs,” and then there's kind of no stopping him from making it happen. He will figure out a way for it to be like exactly what he saw in his head no matter what.
This project happened so early in your relationship. You had just entered a romantic partnership, and then suddenly, you were making a creative partnership. What was it like navigating a completely new way of being together?
MM: I feel like when you are early in a relationship, you have these butterflies anyway. Both being creative people, the way that we channeled those butterflies was to throw ourselves into creating something together. Right before we started officially dating was when I did the “Make Me Happy” photo, the “Good Lady” photo, the “Sara Berry” photo… I was full of creative energy just from talking to him. It was probably the most productive, creative summer I've ever had because it was the first time—and it was really the only time that I can think of—where I was purely doing something for just the sake of doing it. I had no assignment for these photos. I was just going out and doing it with friends, because I was so invigorated by, at that time, our friendship and then this budding romance. Photography was a way to channel that energy, and then when we officially started dating, we really turned into this kind of like a cyclone of creativity.
RSO: I think creating 35MM together was in tandem with our honeymoon phase. In a lot of ways, it created a true partnership. I think at that time, it was the absolute thing that both of us needed, craved and wanted. It was the first time I really felt true love and friendship coming together, and that to me was the magic of that experience.
Your 35MM retrospective album 35MM: A Musical Exhibition In Focus is such a thorough, deep dive into the process of creating this project. But before getting into the details, what were your overarching thoughts looking back at younger versions of your creative selves through this work?
MM: There is a duality that I feel when I'm looking at old photos. Simultaneously, I think, “Oh my God, I've come so far,” and “Oh my God, I was so brave back then.” I was trying things that I would never try now because now I know better. I'm a little bit more self-editing sometimes now, and it's fun to look back at the photos and see stuff that I tried just to play. For instance, something like the “Crazytown” double exposures were fun for me to look back at: That was the first time I'd really played around with double exposures at all. There has been so many benchmark moments in my career that have utilized double exposures, and seeing it traced all the way back to 35MM was crazy.
RSO: Betsy [Wolfe] and I both talked about this a little bit on In Focus. Once I do a project, I just set it aside. I'm over it, and I move on to the next thing. And, it was not until this past December, where I re-listened to the album from the beginning, that I was like, “Oh, I'm actually really proud of this. And there's something really, really special here.”
I work with a lot of young writers, and the thing I try to impress with them is just get to the end [of your project] and put the work out there. I think both Matt and I look at our work, and think, “I'm super proud of like 70 percent of it; 20 percent was totally fine for what it needed to be. And then the rest, ‘Oh, maybe not.’” [Laughs] But it is so much better for artists to [just put out work], especially when you're young. Learn what works and what doesn't work.
MM: It was something I really couldn't appreciate until this point, you know. It’s always easier to look back really fondly on something with a little bit of distance. The life 35MM has taken on is so beyond what I imagined when we were standing at the back of the theatre in Brooklyn.
In creating the show in 2012, Matt, you reshot some of these images and during In Focus, Ryan, you discussed proposed changes and alternative lyrics. Looking back on it now in hindsight, are there things that you would do differently in creating 35MM?
RSO: No. Of course, there are choices I wish that I made back then, but I also think that's what makes this piece raw and young and scruffy and scrappy. I mean, when you hear Sondheim talk about how he regrets the lyrics he wrote for “I Feel Pretty,” none of us really think about it. So no. But one thing I wish that had happened: I feel like 35MM has always deserved a proper production. I still dream of a white wall gallery space that, when you walk into it, is totally bare. It's like the set of Carrie. And by the end of it, it is a dump. Blood is everywhere. Photographs are everywhere. The set has been destroyed. But now the space is now a work of art.
And, inversely, are there things from the project’s creation that you remain proud of?
MM: I think what I'm proudest of, for Ryan, is the discovery of “Leave Luanne.” For him, it was such a turning point. He comes from an opera background, a classical music background, and a musical theatre background, and I think “Leave Luanne” was this really cool synthesis of all of those things. I feel like you'd been trying to figure out a way to make that happen for a while. And it wasn't until “Leave Luanne”—this epic, dark, Stephen King-esque, folktale opera—that a stand-alone track like that existed for you in your work. And then it became something that really shaped the direction of your work.
RSO: For me [looking at Matt’s work], it is the fact that, at the time, you were brave enough to say, “I am ready.” Because so much of the time at the time you were like, “I'm not good enough. I don't know enough about X. I don't know enough about Y. I feel like an impostor.” And the fact that you were able to set that aside and say, “I'm going to choose to be proud of my work. I'm going to choose to allow my name to exist as a professional in this field.” I think it was a huge turning point.
With 35MM, you crafted a new way of making theatre. And the ways in which we create has been something that many theatre artists have had to evaluate over the past year and a half with the shutdown. Given your experience with 35MM and the pandemic, are there new ways you want to continue moving forward?
MM: For me, especially after revisiting 35MM during this time away from the industry, I think I am excited to tap back into some of that young, creative energy that I had as well as the idea of creating for the sake of creating rather than always being responsible to multiple people above me and fitting their vision. That is something I haven't really done since this show, and I'm excited to tap more into my own creative flow again.
RSO: I feel like before the pandemic, I was one of these artists that was like, “I have to be the best. I have to do the most. I have to have my show on Broadway. The only thing that matters is making a ton of money, capitalism, capitalism, capitalism.” As a white man, I feel like I took up so much space, and when I wasn't taking up space, I wanted to take up space. But a lot of the things that's happened for me over the last year and a half, I've been making albums that are just on Spotify. It’s like, “They are over here in the window—if you want to come find it, you can come find it.” It has been so satisfying for me to take a seat. I found a contentment in what I do.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.