By Kristina Dorsey
Publication: The Day
What's in a name? Everything
Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel shifted their show's title from "Ella Minnow Pea" - which is the name of the novel on which the musical is based - to "L M N O P" because the former was deemed to sound as if it were a children's show, which it is decidedly not. It was a critique they first heard from industry people who attended a workshop the duo did of the musical.
Then, Burkell and Loesel took it upon themselves to do their own market research. They went down to the TKTS booth in Times Square to ask people in line - you know, their possible future audience members - what they would expect of a show with the title "Ella Minnow Pea." Almost universally, the response was: children's show. They tried again with "L M N O P," and the answers were just what they wanted: dark, edgy, artful, adult.
As if writing a musical isn't tough enough, imagine doing it ... without using certain letters.
Such is the puzzle that librettist Scott Burkell faced when he and composer Paul Loesel adapted Mark Dunn's novel "Ella Minnow Pea."
In the story, letters on a town monument - a monument celebrating the citizens' love of language - start to drop off. Government officials decide to ban the use of each of those letters as they fall. A teenage girl will have none of it; she leads a fight against those restrictive measures - a fight for freedom of speech.
In writing the musical adaptation, Burkell says, the most difficult aspect "was the loss of the letter D, which was impossible to live without - as the cast is finding. They can't paraphrase in this show because they'll say illegal letters."
Loesel adds, "Any time we hear 'and' now and the D is already gone ..."
Loesel says he felt the piece was perfect for Burkell because he loves words, language and puzzles. Indeed, Burkell appreciated all those aspects - but they certainly had their challenges.
For instance, in a novel, there's the visual element to finding alternative ways to convey a word or sentiment without using certain letters. So author Dunn could write something with a "ph" to provide a "f" sound once the F is outlawed. In performance, though, a character can't stop and explain that he's spelling something differently in his head.
At one point, Burkell was wondering whether they'd have to have screens over actors' heads to provide that visual component.
But then he had a breakthrough. He realized what he should do.
"You almost start making up your own language," Burkell says. "You start doing like (the characters) do - you start accommodating and finding new ways to say things. So then the game part kicked in again. And it was fun again."
He's particularly proud of a number at the top of act two, "Things Can Always Be Worse," since he had to without a number of letters by that point - including important ones like D and K. Audience members have thought the actors are singing illegal letters in that song, but Burkell assures them that no illegal letters are anywhere in the lyrics.
Just as the letters disappear, so do the instruments. As the show goes along, musicians from the pit disappear until things go a capella.
Existing in the midst of all those creative letter-related and orchestration shifts is a big message. "L M N O P" is about choice, in a way that people can apply to whatever their cause is.
Burkell says, "That's certainly something that spoke to me - a group deciding that because we believe this, everyone must believe it. ... That was very prevalent in the book and something I feel is very prevalent in our society. Mark's book deals with it in such a deft way that I can only hope our musical comes close to achieving."
Burkell and Loesel says that everyone who sees if thinks it's about something different - and something that's very reflective of the person. One person might think it's about women's rights, while someone else views it as a piece on freedom of speech.
"It's whatever their main issue is or maybe the fight they're fighting, which I think is the beauty of any good fable," Burkell says.
A quick note about the show's creators: Loesel (whose day job is playing keyboards for Broadway's "Wicked") and Burkell also wrote the musical "The Extraordinary Ordinary," which received a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Grant. Their songs have been performed by Kristin Chenoweth and Rebecca Luker, among many others.
"LMNOP," Norma Terris Theatre, 33 North Main St., Chester; opens tonight and runs through Aug. 18; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs. (except 8 tonight), 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; $44; (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org.