These Guys Write… Quest for Claus: the Musical
By Brian Maticic, Luke Gomez, Shelby Maticic, and Ben Cleaveland
Brelby Buzz: Ben, this is a show you’re familiar with because you originated the role of Nick when Brelby produced it 3 years ago and you were approached specifically to write the music. What inspired you during that process?
Ben: Yes, this show marks two big milestones for me as an artist! In 2013, this show was the first time I was cast as the lead in a show, and now, in 2016, this show marks the first time my original music and lyrics will be produced and performed in front of a paying audience! My intimate knowledge of the story and all of the character arcs really helped me during the process of coming up with music and lyrics for each character to sing.
I have been writing original music and lyrics consistently for 10 years, and I just now feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it. My approach is both technical and just the ole “if it sounds good” method. There are technical aspects I keep in my head, but I try to let the melody take priority. What this means is that I do not limit the melody into any key, scale or time signature (much to the actors’/singers’ chagrin). This means that there are A LOT of time changes and tempo shifts in these songs. I’m not doing it to be confusing, or to be overly technical, but just so that the melody has the right groove.
In addition to focusing on the melody, I work a lot on the “flow” of the vocal phrases. I approach it similarly to making an instrumental “groove,” where I play with syncopating the downbeats, but with the lyrics. I work with the SOUND of the consonants and vowels in the lyrics (as well as the meaning of the words), and treat the perceived sound of the syllables as a form of percussion, which can move parallel with or contrast against the instruments.
I try to use every tool I have at my hand to set out to create something that sounds cohesive and realized.
Brelby Buzz: Do you find rehearsals more or less challenging with new and original music? How do your songs help the actors find their characters?
Ben: I told this to everyone on the first day we were rehearsing, that as a composer, I am trying to make the performers sound as good as possible. I told them that everything I was teaching them is entirely flexible, so if any singers are having trouble singing certain notes, I can just change the key so the notes are in a better range, or re-write phrases so that notes are all in a more powerful range. However, because my music ends up being rather complex, the overall process still can be a little bit challenging, especially because no one has ever heard these songs before, (unlike if we were doing a previously existing, famous work). That being said, everyone has done a fantastic job of learning the songs, despite their complexity, and they sound fantastic.
As a songwriter, I always find myself using metaphors to talk about various feelings or topics. I believe that characters in musical should use metaphors that are unique to their character; So if they are a reindeer farmer, they use a metaphor about horned animals to talk about judging people by their appearance, or if they live in the north pole, they talk about the similarities between the boldness and colorful diversity of the Northern Lights to talk about boldly celebrating diversity in everyday life.
I know some songwriters for musicals take the approach of making each song as broad as possible, so that members of the audience can apply the song to their everyday life, and that it can exist outside of the musical. My approach is that the song should be as specific as possible to the character who sings it. Nobody else would chose those words to describe how they feel, because this character is a unique character from a unique background. I believe that by doing this, the audience is not “left out,” but instead, drawn in, to hear this character’s unique worldview. And by listening and understanding where the character is coming from, and what they mean, the audience member is able to have an experience to apply in their own life. We are nosy people, we like hearing about the specific details of other people’s lives.
Brelby Buzz: Which of the songs are you most excited for audiences to experience? Why do you love it so much?
Ben: The song I am most excited to for everyone to hear is “We Don’t Need Magic,” a duet between Nick and Layla in the second act. It is actually the very first song I wrote for this musical.
I know lots of lyricists talk about how the act of falling in love is “magical,” but in this world, magic is a real thing, and for Nick, he’s grown up around magic, so it wouldn’t be extremely special. Comparing a passionate interpersonal encounter as something as mundane as your dad’s employment wouldn’t be doing it justice. For Nick, Love is something SO spectacular, that it eclipses the importance of magic.
I was also exploring the idea of believing; both in magic, and believing in each other. Neither one of them needs to “prove” anything to each other at this point, so instead of coming into the relationship with selfish intents (what can I get out of this), they are both open and accepting, and ready to see the person they each will grow into.
I have a line that says “What we have is alive,” and I wrote this to contrast the idea of a magic potion, something that would make you lifeless, to falling in love which is full of momentum and has this huge potential for growth.
A Conversation Between Three Playwrights
Shelby: We originally wrote this show three seasons ago as our annual ‘Writers Circle’ piece. We decided that we wanted to blend classic holiday characters into a quest story. Do you remember some of the characters that didn’t make it into the script? Which was the hardest for you to let go?
Luke: Krampus, Krampus, Krampus, I so desperately wanted Krampus the christmas demon to be in the show. I know it’s weird but when we first got down to making the script I was genuinely interested in non-american Christmas traditions. Krampus came up immediately, and now that much of the mainstream world is aware of him, I feel rather punk rock knowing that I was his biggest fan at the beginning in America.
Shelby: I remember being so horrified at the thought during the first round. You’re such a hipster, Luke. You loved Krampus before he was cool.
Brian: Yeah, but unlike a hipster during the rewrites this year, Luke was still pulling for Krampus even though everyone knows who he is now. I think in early brainstorming elves were going to play a bigger role. Like how much they had to build and how they competed with modern tech, but it required nick to stay in the north pole/workshop area too long as opposed to starting his quest, and took a detour from the uplifting fun of the show.
Shelby: I remember after we closed the show last time, Brian was the one who suggested to me that it needed music. What were your thoughts when we first talked about turning the show into a musical?
Luke: I was ok with the idea, honestly after Krampus I really latched onto the idea that we were making Batman Begins but for Santa. There was a lot that needed to be filled out and ideas to get cultivated.
Shelby: We essentially sat down and decided to refine the arcs of the three main characters. Which was your favorite to see us revisit?
Luke: Most definitely Layla.
Luke: Well back then we just made her a token “str0ng lady” like we thought we should but I think this time around we made a unique character. Something with some bite and edge. Maybe not everyone will see it but I hope the right people see it.
Brian: I think we definitely made huge improvements for Layla, but also Nick. In the first draft, he was a bit whiney. But I think we did a great job with the rewrites of making his arch much more dynamic, and he is a much more charismatic character the audience is going to want to root for (even if he is childish in the beginning) because he grows so much as the show progresses.
Shelby: I agree. I loved that we gave each of them a simple way to grow through the show…and I can certainly relate to Layla’s difficulty in asking for help.
Shelby: Luke, you’ve actually sort of stayed out of the rehearsal process for the most part. What are you most excited to see come to life with this incarnation?
Luke: Brian’s hair.
Brian: It brings out my eyes.
Shelby: Haha! It’s really a sight to behold.
Luke: And also each character, from that first reading everyone took a new direction from the first production.
Shelby: They really did. It’s a different show now…and I think that Ben’s beautiful music has really helped it to grow into something new and fresh for the holidays.
Shelby: So you liked working on Layla’s character development…but I’m curious. Who is your favorite character in the show?
Luke: The rat king is my favorite. He’s actually one of the villains I’m most proud of writing. Both goofy and sympathetic in the best ways
Shelby: This is the first time that we’ve revisited one of our collaborative scripts to remount…although it won’t be the last. What were your takeaways from digging into this familiar story after being away from it for a while?
Luke: At the core? I like Christmas more than I let on
Shelby: You’re a big softy.
Luke: Maybe. Krampus is still my spirit animal.
Shelby: Fair enough.
Brian: It was really refreshing to have enough distance from the script to approach it with new eyes, which I think allowed us to be more willing to make changes that would improve it. I’m looking forward to doing again in the future with a few of our other scripts.
Shelby: The three of us have been collectively involved in more writing teams at Brelby than anyone else. What do you think you’ve learned about us as writers? What do you know you can expect from each of us when we dive into projects?
Luke: So I’ve seen both Shelby and Brian thrive in their writing this year, with Oz Chronicles and Windfall. With 2017 I see a very clear evolution for both of them. I’m excited for what they’ll make and I’m even more excited if I get to be a part of those shows.
Brian: *blushes* shucks. I’m really excited for Blacklisters. As soon as Luke pitched it I was endlessly curious to explore the dark world Luke was creating with it. And as for Shelby, All I can say is ninja elves. A Christmas play with ninja elves, how could I not lose my mind over that prospect. 2017 will be a great year, where all three of us will see work produced on the Brelby stage, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Shelby: Aww…thanks guys. Brian has been mulling over Depend on Me for a while now…and I’m excited enough about the show and the team that I actually signed up to stage manage. It would take an important project to bring me out of my SM retirement.
I’m also very excited for Blacklisters. It came at such a poignant time for the themes that it addresses. I’ve been watching you grow as a playwright for…8 years? Maybe? Your voice is so unique…and it’s amazing to see how well you cater it to the needs of your audience. The difference between Blacklisters and Quest for Claus is pretty big…but you have the skills to handle both very well.
Luke: Thank you Shelby and honestly, despite how different Blacklisters and Quest for Claus are, in my head they ultimately mean the same thing. They’re my weird attempt to make sense of world that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes that means Christmas, other times it means fascism but it’s still confusing to me.
Shelby: Whatever it means, I’m glad that you’re both a part of our community of playwrights.