An American story: Douglas Lyons discusses the musical ‘Five Points,’ part of Goodspeed’s festival
In 2009, New Haven native Douglas Lyons was one of the Hartt School students who were starring in “Band Geeks!” at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals. At the time, Lyons was focused on developing a career as a performer, and he went on to do just that, making it to Broadway.
When he was part of the national tour of “The Book of Mormon,” though, he discovered a new path: as a writer of musicals.
He says it was the result of a bit of happenstance. He and Ethan Pakchar, who eventually became writing partners, were both on the “Mormon” tour, Lyons as an actor and Pakchar as a guitarist in the orchestra.
“My parents had just gotten me a guitar for my 25th birthday. We met, he was supposed to give me lessons, and he started playing and I ended up singing. Sessions in hallways and rehearsal rooms and hotel rooms turned into songs and albums and an agent and musicals and commissions and festivals and beyond,” Lyons says. “I always say, it’s sort of destiny. It was meant to be this way.”
Indeed, the duo’s latest work, the musical “Five Points,” brings Lyons back to the Goodspeed Festival, this time with his own show. Lyons wrote the lyrics and collaborated with Pakchar on the music for the piece, and Harrison David Rivers did the book.
The idea for “Five Points” came from Pakchar. Pakchar and Lyons were about to record their album “#Love (Live)” when Pakchar brought up the history of Five Points section of New York City in the mid-1800s, which Lyons didn’t know.
“He said, ‘Well, there was a lot of Irish and Chinese and African-American tension in this Lower East Side melting pot. It was full of booze and full of art and full of community and hunger and that gritty America that we speak of. It was very diverse,’” Lyons says. “We did some research, and there were two dancers, one named John Diamond, one named Master Juba (real name: William Lane), who were historic (figures), one an Irish jigger, and Master Juba an African step dancer. When they would battle, there was this exchange of footwork that is said to have birthed American tap dance, so that sounded really rich and promising for a theatrical production, obviously.”
They started work on the project in 2014, bringing in book writer Rivers.
Lyons says that sometimes the world pits people against each other. But, occasionally, “in the midst of all of the aggravation, that aggravation actually births something incredible. Out of the tensions between people, art is born. What ‘Five Points’ is, is an example of how communities that were pinned against each other ended up accidentally creating something that became what America is.”
He sees the show as “a collision of art, culture, and a reminder that we have much more in common than our differences.”
It wasn’t just the thematic elements that were appealing; the music possibilities were, too. Lyons says he was intrigued “by the sound of an Irish Celtic show in conjunction with an African-American blues gospel vocabulary, and what that fusion would create for a Broadway musical.” The rhythm for Irish music is more “a one-y and a two-y,” as he describes it, while the black ensemble in “Five Points” lives more in the pocket. In the show’s opening number, both sides sing essentially the same number but with different rhythms.
“I think we, very much like ‘Hamilton,’ we are telling a historic piece but with a contemporary sound. We borrowed from historic Celtic Irish jigs and songs, and then we’ve created a contemporary vocabulary for the African-American side that has lot of fiddle and blues and also gospel in it. The fun and exciting thing is when they’re overlapping and they have to come together in harmony. (It’s) created very much like the Irish jig and step dance created tap dance — we’ve created a new American sound hopefully with this show of what a Celtic and a gospel score would produce,” Lyons says.
They have developed “Five Points” during a variety of workshops and readings over the years. The writers are tweaking “Five Points” at the Goodspeed Festival in advance of the show’s official April 7 full-production premiere at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis.
This wasn’t necessarily a career Lyons envisioned as a child. He had sung in church and had taken some dance classes in middle and high school, but he didn’t really start participating in musical theater until he auditioned for and was accepted into the Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford. He remembers being particularly inspired by seeing the national tour of “Rent” that came through the Shubert when he was in high school — and then, during his sophomore year at Hartt, he auditioned for and won a part in that same “Rent” tour. He took a sabbatical from college to perform in “Rent” (he says that “taught me a lot as a 19 year old”) before returning to Hartt.
After graduation, he developed a list of credits that include joining “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway as a swing (a swing understudies several chorus roles); this was before the show won its many Tony awards.
Lyons was an original Broadway cast member of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” where he played a Drifter and a stage manager. The “Beautiful” experience, he says, was “life-changing, reaffirming. I think a lot of why I began to believe I could even be a writer was because I was in a show about a woman who believed she could be a writer, and she changed the world with her music. So that really rubbed off on me.”
His other works include “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical,” which he conceived, inspired by Civil Rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock Nine.
Lyons, based in New York City, says that performing in shows like “Mormon” and “Beautiful” have helped him as a writer.
“It’s the best training. I didn’t need a writing program because, if you really listen to how audiences react to work and you pay attention to the technique of how that was built, there’s a lot of formula in it, there’s a lot of smart stuff in there, and it’s not by accident the audience reacts a certain way,” he says.
Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals schedule
-- "Five Points," 7:30 p.m., Goodspeed
Music by Ethan Pakchar and Douglas Lyons
Lyrics by Douglas Lyons
Book by Harrison David Rivers
-- Festival Cabaret, 10 p.m., Gelston House
-- Seminars, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.,
Gelston House/La Vita at Goodspeed Landing
Includes "The Business of Show: How to Produce Commercially" by Tom Viertel, executive director of the Commercial Theatre Institute; "Festival Alumni Success Stories"; and a session by composer and arranger David Krane.
-- New Musical Preview, 3 p.m., Goodspeed
Preview of three new musicals headed to Goodspeed's Terris Theatre in 2018
-- Symposium, 4 p.m., Goodspeed
"The Critic's Role in the Digital Age," a panel of prominent theater critics lead by WNPR's Colin McEnroe. This event is free and open to the public.
-- Festival Dinner, 5:30 p.m., Gelston House or La Vita
-- "Sweetwater," 7:30 p.m., Goodspeed
Music by Sean Mahoney
Book and Lyrics by Patricia Noonan
As World War II shakes the nation, sisters Beth and Frankie join women from across America to fly for the U.S. Army.
-- Festival Cabaret, 10 p.m., Gelston House
-- "Passing Through," 1 p.m., Goodspeed
Book by Eric Ulloa
Music & Lyrics by Brett Ryback
Based on the work "Walking to Listen" by Andrew Forsthoefel
The true story of a young man who journeys on foot from Pennsylvania to California, collecting stories as he goes. His trek brings to light a repressed family trauma.
-- Meet the Writers Reception, 3:30 p.m., Goodspeed
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