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In 2008, Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman were working at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center as interns.
The duo, after becoming a writing team while students at Carnegie Mellon University, won the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Program - through which they got a fellowship to come to the O'Neill's National Music Theater Conference.
They spent much of their time implementing changes that the creators of various shows wanted to make to the script and to the score. But, as aspiring musical-theater artists, they couldn't help but think about their own future possibilities.
"After seeing this place, it was a dream of ours to come here," Kooman says.
They have just returned. Their musical "The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes" - with book and lyrics by Dimond and music by Kooman - was among the three musicals selected from 176 submissions for this year's National Musical Theater Conference.
In between their O'Neill internship and now, the team has been doing extremely well. They received the 2010 Jonathan Larson Grant and became the first recipients of the Lorenz Hart Award. Their musical "Golden Gate" was done at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and "Homemade Fusion" was performed at London's Amabassadors Theater and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And a local performance of note: Their "Dani Girl" was staged earlier this year at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich.
As for "The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes," Dimond says, "It started as a very, very basic idea of how funny it would be if somebody woke up one day and suddenly his life was a musical. ...
"It took a couple of years, really, before we found enough that would sustain that idea and would make it more than just a gimmicky convention for a show and found the heart of the show and what that transformation would mean for a character."
Dimond says they decided early on that the best way to add conflict to the story was to have this happen to the person least likely to want his life to be a musical and to have him spend the show trying to get out of it.
They had to find balance musically, too. They ended up with some songs that are parodies or use satire. Others, though, aren't a reference to another show but exist completely within the world of "Howard Barnes," Kooman says.
Characters in musicals tend to have an "I want" song, meaning a number explaining what they want to do, Dimond notes. Here, the team realized the main character's "I want" song needed to be about not wanting to sing. That was a difficult paradox to dramatize. The final result: Barnes' frustration and anxiety build to a point where he slips into singing - and then catches himself doing it and stops several times, before finally giving in and singing full-out.
Developing "Howard Barnes" during the O'Neill conference has been a boon for Kooman and Dimond. The center provides a safe environment where writers feel free to take as many risks as they want in order to learn about the piece, Dimond notes. And they are surrounded by a great group of artists - actors, directors, dramaturgs, and on it goes - who can share their opinions.
Just as important is the response from audiences. "Howard Barnes" had its first staged reading Saturday night at the O'Neill, so Dimond and Kooman watched that and then spent Saturday night and Sunday morning working on changes. They got to see those alterations in performance during the Sunday matinee.
"To have the luxury of that sort of immediacy in this process is really incredible," Dimond says. "It just doesn't happen anywhere else, really, the chance to try the show out, to have the limited but sufficient amount of time to write and then implement changes and to immediately get the feedback of the audience the next night. It's terrific. It really motivates you. It pushes you, and the piece grows as a result of it."
"The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes," 7 p.m. Friday, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford; $28; (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org.