THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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It Happened in Key West
Writer Jason Huza tells us about mixing romance, music and the macabre in his new story
There’s no one path towards creating a musical. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In early 2013, Jeremiah James was cast in a staged reading of a play I’d written. He was charismatic and effectual in the role; suspending disbelief by going for the jugular at pivotal moments. He is a fine actor. What I discovered afterwards is, he's a fine storyteller as well.
After our production, he approached me with what may be to some a wild idea. A few years prior he’d been up scrolling though late-night fare and stumbled across a vignette describing the events surrounding Carl von Cosel and Elena Hoyos. It was painted as a macabre affair: grave robbing, toiling in secret, attempting resurrection... but he didn’t see it that way. His vision was of a love story, but truthfully, I was more piqued by the grave-robbing.
He told me a Broadway composer, Jill Santoriello (Tale of Two Cities), was on board to do the music, and they’d been working with various writers to find a tone suitable to his vision, to no avail. I agreed to do research and meet in a week’s time to discuss. I found online Carl’s personal journal containing his version of events. How he and Elena were destined to be together, his grief at losing her despite his best efforts, his patient two-year vigil in her mausoleum, his honest belief Elena asked him to bring her home, his loving care in tending to her upkeep.
Macabre, yes, but I found in the story the same sentiment Jeremiah saw. Carl was an eccentric, to be sure, but he was in love.
A major factor in developing the show actually preceded our meeting by eight months. The summer before we met, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer – given weeks to live. When I made it to her bedside, I found a trove of materials surrounding her bed. My father is a diligent man; his mind always at task. He had moved his effects from work into the hospital so that he might stay beside her at all times. He spoke with her, even after she lost her powers of speech, and walked away from a forty-year career without a second thought when given an ultimatum. This was love. This was love in it’s highest manifestation. Forsaking everything in devotion to another.
I met with Jill and Jeremiah with a clear sense of how our show ought to proceed. It was a love story; couldn’t be any other way. I put together a spotty first draft in three weeks.
Jill Santoriello, writer, composer, lyricist – only the second woman to do book, music, and lyrics on a Broadway show – had recently lost her mother as well. So, we were in a place of mutual understanding as to where Carl was coming from. She took my rough version of 'If You’ve Never Felt this Way' and turned it into a majestic, timeless ode to love and loss. I cry when I hear it... everyone does.
Collaborating was a cinch; us three are very lucky. Jill would compose a new song and we’d marvel at her natural ability to build worlds and populate them with distinctive personalities, alternating between comedy and tragedy with an auteur’s proficiency. Jeremiah has a keen understanding of drama, so would introduce new character ideas and beats along the way heightening tension or slowing down scenes to be cherished. Over time, the script became a mélange of our collective inputs, Jill owning some of the funniest lines in the show, Jeremiah, moments of visceral audience-connection, and for myself, a tribute to my mother for introducing the joys of musical theater with Grease, Annie and Hello, Dolly growing up.
Jeremiah switched hats once we had a serviceable script and utilized a network of contacts built over his years as a performer in the US and UK. Marylou Rothfuss and Rashad V. Chambers, prescient initial producers, Marc Robin, a visionary director, Jamie Roderick, a rock star of technical stagecraft, Lisa Zinni, costume designer extraordinaire, Neil Rutherford, prodigious polymath, Wade McCollum, a star we caught in rapid ascendancy, and my wife, Denise Huza, a darling taskmaster. What we all have in common is a love of this material, the joy it exudes, and the timeless notes it hits upon. We could not be prouder of It Happened in Key West and are beyond excited to share it with the theater-goers of London’s West End.
It Happened in Key West is coming to the London stage, starting from July 4th at the Charing Cross Theatre.
See www.keywestmusical.com for tickets and booking information.