Onstage / Mozart and mature love
The Other Mozart
The Other Mozart photo by Charlotte Dobre; Kelly Younger photo by Jon Rou
By Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Younger
Director: Sheila McCarthy
Cast: Betsy Bittar and Marc-Jon Filipone
When Peg, a seventy-something Irish Catholic bird lover meets Irving, a seventy-something Jewish metal-detector-toting East Coaster on an online dating site, it feels like love at first click. But after their crazy margarita-filled first date, complete with body shots and morning-after tattoos, Peg and Irving find that they still have a little growing up to do if they want to forget their past and move forward together.
That’s Kalamazoo, and, if you couldn’t guess, it’s a comedy. And listening to its authors talk will give you a bit of an idea what’s in store when you see this play at New Phoenix this month:
Take me through how this came to be a writing partnership: did you get an idea together and decide to write it together?
Michelle Kholos Brooks: Kelly and I literally met on a playground. A teacher at our kids’ school said, “Hey you’re a playwright, you’re a playwright, you should meet.” We both rolled our eyes, sucked down some coffee, and politely asked each other a few questions waiting for the moment we could bolt out of there. Somehow, we got each other laughing—probably at our mutual awkwardness—and we decided to meet for lunch. Kelly had been kicking around an idea about a collection of plays for older actors. He had started writing Peg and asked if I wanted to try writing a counterpart. I like to say that Kelly took one look at me and saw an old Jewish man. I often feel he’s not wrong.
Kelly Younger: She stalked me. Actresses always complain, and justifiably so, that there are very few roles for women over forty, and almost no roles for over fifty. You can forget about over sixty. I had a dear friend lamenting this state of things and I said, “Hey, I’ll write you something.” It started as a monologue for a character named Peg. She performed the hell out of it, which inspired me to keep going, but it wasn’t until I shared this with Michelle that I got the idea and said, “What if you wrote a monologue for a man of the same age, and we put them together?”
We had not written together before. Most of our time was spent trying to figure out how to merge documents, share files, connect to WiFi. Once that was done, it was usually time to go, and we hadn’t written anything. It’s a miracle we even have a play.
MKB: This was my first collaboration as a playwright. It was weird, but we both went into it with a sense of fun and a kind of what-have-we-got-to-lose attitude. We wrote separately at first, but, over time, the lines started to blur and we don’t even know who wrote what anymore.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of collaboration?
MKB: The great advantage is having someone who is smart and game and will challenge you to be better and funnier. The worst part is trying to get together with our separate schedules. And, also having to break it to Kelly when he came up with really bad play titles. I didn’t enjoy schooling him.
KY: I still want to call it Love in the Time of Cholesterol but Michelle doesn’t really have a sense of humor. Again, a miracle the play got written with so much resistance to comic genius.
Kelly, I know you write a lot of comedy; Michelle, do you? How was this play a departure for both of you?
MKB: Yes, I have written some comedy, as it were.
KY: Every play is a departure, or, at least it should be, from the last play you wrote. But what was great about working with Michelle is she really gets the nuts and bolts of comedy. Often people think it’s just writing punch lines, but to construct a joke is quite laborious, more arithmetic than wit. In fact, there’s nothing less funny than writing funny. That’s why it was so good to work with a partner, because we would make each other laugh during all the hard work.
Unlike a musical, where roles are more or less divided into two or three collaborative parts, a play is a different animal. How did you work together to write this?
MKB: Kelly started off with Peg and I started off with Irv, but, as I said earlier, after a while, we got into enough of a groove that both of us spoke for both of them. It was great fun to morph in and out of the characters that way. Our mind meld occasionally got creepy when we would suddenly blurt out the same line.
KY: Agree. We each started off as our own character, but it was never territorial or defensive. In fact, by the end, we knew their voices so well that we bounced back and forth between them. Michelle might say that we blurted out lines at the same time, but, often I would say the line, and she would repeat it quickly, then claim we said it at the same time. Whatever.
What did you do to put yourselves in the minds of seventy-year-olds?
KY: Honestly, we imagined them as teenagers in older bodies. We wanted to avoid cliché senior jokes. These two are young again, and in love, so often they are more petulant than flatulent. Also, Michelle is considerably older than I am, so I often deferred to her wisdom and experience.
MKB: Peg and Irv are just us but older and achier. I can only speak for myself when I say I hope to get old one day and still be up for adventure.
What does each of you feel you were able to contribute to the whole? What contribution/idea/line are you most happy with?
MKB: Individual contributions are hard to parse out. We kept each other going when schedules were demanding, and we were both interested in serving the play instead of our own egos. Except for Kelly. His ego is bigger than his shoe size. You should see those boats.
KY: I wrote all the good parts.
What’s the journey been for this play?
MKB: One surprise after another. It’s been lovely to see audiences falling for Peg and Irv the way we did.
KY: Plays are like paper airplanes. You’re never sure where they’re going to land. Or who they’ll poke in the eye. But, we’re happy to learn it’s landing in Buffalo.
New Phoenix opens Kalamazoo May 4 (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).
Collaborative playwrights Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Younger
The Other Mozart
Shea’s 710 Theatre
By Sylvia Milo
Director: Ann Patrice Carrigan
Cast: Sylvia Milo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a sister, and her untold story is the subject of The Other Mozart, which hits Shea’s 710 Theatre early this month. Like many who will see this one-woman show, creator/performer Sylvia Milo had no idea that Wolfgang had a sister—Anna Maria, nicknamed Nannerl—let alone one who was also a gifted performer.
“Nine years ago, I was visiting Vienna for the 250th birthday celebrations of Wolfgang Amadeo, and I was thrilled to explore the city following in Wolfi’s footsteps, many of which turned out to be Nannerl’s as well. At the Mozarthaus Vienna—Wolfgang’s apartment—on the exit wall, as if by an afterthought, there was a little copy of the Mozart family portrait. I saw a woman seated by Wolfgang, at the harpsichord, their hands intertwined, playing together, looking like equals,” recalls Milo. “I grew up studying to become a violinist. Neither my music history nor my repertoire included any women composers. With my braided hair, I was called ‘little Mozart’ by my violin teacher, and he meant Wolfi. I never heard that Amadeus had a sister. I never heard of Nannerl Mozart
until I saw that family portrait.”
The knowledge was intoxicating, empowering, inspiring, and prompted years of research, gathering a writing team, writing, and rewriting. And research didn’t just involve reading about Wolfgang, but about women and women artists during the Mozarts’ time and in different countries, Enlightenment philosophers, conduct manuals, etc. “But the richest source of information came from the Mozart family letters,” Milo says. “There are hundreds. We have them because Nannerl preserved them. Most are written by Leopold and Wolfgang—those were saved—but some of Nannerl’s letters survived as well. Nannerl slowly emerged to me from these letters, sometimes only from the replies to her lost letters. I was able to understand the Mozarts as people, as a family, and through the lens of the times and the social situation in which they lived. I saw Nannerl’s potential, her dreams, her strength, grace, and her fight.
“She was also a child prodigy, five years older than Amadeus,” Milo continues. “The children toured most of Europe performing together as wunderkinder. There are reviews praising Nannerl, and she was even billed first—until she turned eighteen. A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman risked her reputation. She was left behind in Salzburg, and her father only took Wolfgang on the next tours. She never toured again.”
Nannerl may not have toured, but she didn’t give up on music; she wrote and sent at least one composition to her father and brother, one Wolfgang praised as “beautiful,” while her father said nothing. None of her music survives, and it’s not known whether she stopped writing, never showed it to anyone again, it was destroyed, or even if it was attributed to her more famous brother. What we do know, according to Milo, is that Wolfgang writes repeatedly that nobody plays his keyboard music as well as his sister, and Leopold describes his daughter as “one of the most skillful players in Europe,” with “perfect insight into harmony and modulations,” and that she improvises “so successfully that you would be astounded.”
In the absence of Nannerl’s music, composers Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen have created what they perceive to be her musical imagination, full of the sounds she might have heard: fluttering fans, tea cups, music boxes, bells, clavichords. The set—a massive dress that spills over the entire stage—conveys a world of opulence and restriction. The show reaches Buffalo after three years of touring the world.
“Last October, I was able to bring the play to Vienna, to that very house—Mozarthaus, Amadeus’s apartment—where I first saw the Mozart Family portrait,” says Milo. “Nannerl was not given the opportunity to thrive. And what she did create was not valued or preserved; we will never know what could have been, and this is our loss. To bring this other Mozart to people’s minds is to open their awareness to stories that have been overlooked for too long. It brings women into the history of the great. And it brings awareness to the inequalities that still persist today.”
The Other Mozart runs May 4–7 at Shea’s 710 Theatre at Shea’s (sheas.org, 847-0850).
ALSO PLAYING (in order of closing)
The Winslow Boy closes at Irish Classical Theatre May 4. (irishclassicaltheatre.com, 853-4282).
Subversive Theatre continues The Trial of Trayvon Martin through May 6 (subversivetheatre.org, 408-0499).
Godspell is at Lancaster Opera House until May 7 (lancopera.org, 683-1776).
The world premiere of I’m Fine is up until May 13 at Alleyway (alleyway.com, 852-2600).
Million Dollar Quartet is on at MusicalFare until May 21 (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).
O’Connell & Company closes The Cemetery Club May 21 (oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800).
The Country House closes May 21 at Road Less Traveled Productions (roadlesstraveledproductions.org; 629-3069).
Jewish Repertory Theatre continues The Great God Pan through May 21 (jewishrepertorytheatre.com, 888-718-4253).
The Father closes May 21 at Kavinoky (kavinokytheatre.com, 881-7668).
OPENING THIS MONTH
New Phoenix opens Kalamazoo May 4 (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).
Wicked begins a two-week-plus run at Shea’s on May 17 (sheas.org, 847-0850).
American Repertory Theater of Western New York begins A Behanding in Spokane May 4 (artofwny.com, 634-1102).
Elephant & Piggie’s We Are In A Play! opens May 6 at Theatre of Youth (theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400).
Playwright and Dramatists Guild councilmember Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young.