It’s been nearly two years since a new Peter Mills musical has premiered—which is surprising, given that Mills has specialized for years in creating at least one new musical per year for Prospect Theatre Company, which he and wife Cara Reichel serve as Associate Artist/Resident Writer and Producing Artistic Director, respectively.
But those two years have still been busy ones. Mills has been revisiting and refining some of his older works. This month, Iron Curtain, which Mills developed with composer Stephen Weiner and librettist Susan DiLallo in 2006, is running at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
This revival is the second production of Iron Curtain this year—the first being at Issaquah, WA's Village Theatre. “We joke about this being the culmination of our ‘five year plan,’ for the piece, since it was originally produced in 2006,” Mills quips. The show follows the adventures and misadventures of a pair of musical comedy writers from the 1950s who are kidnapped to write musicals for the Soviet Union. Naturally, hilarity ensues.
“There's no problem with the shelf life of the comedy; it's as funny as it was back then. The only difference is that it has gotten more streamlined in the intervening years, thanks to workshops and readings.” (The show has been refined and revised at the Village Theater in Seattle, at the O'Neill Center, and at the National Alliance for Musical Theater.)
Mills feels that the biggest challenge in revising a show is a psychological one: “Accept that every production is its own unique animal, and therefore you cannot always approach things in the same way as you did in a past production.” This applies to every detail of the show, and what worked before may not work with some of the new design ideas, or a different cast. “You have to be willing to re-invent something that you've already seen in a fully realized form.”
For this particular production, he adds, there weren't many changes to the score. “Most of the heavy lifting in that department was done earlier, at the O'Neill Center, for instance—where we trimmed down songs and cut others entirely. That kind of work is actually easier when there are more people involved—collaborators, and a director— because usually it means cutting things to which you are attached. You need others to talk you into it!”
Most often, he adds, those insights are about cutting and streamlining. “You find out that you don't need certain things for the story to work. You had to write them originally in order to understand the story yourself, but then they fall away...like training wheels.” He appreciates the opportunity to revisit shows through NAMT presentations, he adds, because the time constraints are so severe. “Trying to present your show in 45 minutes really forces you to think about what is essential.”
While Mills generally works as both composer and lyricist, he partnered with Weiner for Iron Curtain’s score, with Weiner taking the music and Mills the words. The main challenge in collaborating, he says, is simply finding the time to sit down and work together. “Steve and I are collaborating now on a new show, and for any given song we usually only have a few precious hours together at a piano to work out all the kinks.” To that end, each of them works on the score independently when working together proves too cumbersome. “Steve will generate a lot of musical ideas in advance. I will try to fill in lyrics for a musical form that we've settled on. But inevitably, there's a lot of back-and-forth finishing work that has to be done together—or at least, it's so much faster when we can work together.”
Unlike many young writers and composers who must submit their work to festivals and producers in order to get noticed, Mills has his own theater company to produce his shows whenever they’re ready. But this can be a mixed blessing, he notes: “The pro is obviously that you get produced—and those productions get reviewed and seen by industry folks, etc, which can lead to good things. The drawback is that once a show has been produced, it's often disqualified from various opportunities it might otherwise have for further development.” There are a lot of organizations whose mission is to develop new musical theater, he explains, but those organizations want to find work that has not yet “emerged,” as Mills puts it. “In the case of Prospect's productions, we often feel that, yes, the show has been produced, but it's not as if its development is finished.” Even after it runs for a month, a show can continue to evolve and grow. (For the record, he adds, this is what happened recently with The Blue Flower, which is currently running at Second Stage).