The Playwrights of PPF: Daniel Messe, Sean Hartley & Craig Lucas

Tania Thompson
 | Mar 19, 2019

Sean Hartley & Craig Lucas

​The Collaborators

Daniel M​essé is the founder and principal songwriter of the band, Hem. In 2009, The Public Theatre tapped Hem to score Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park (starring Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald, directed by Daniel Sullivan), for which they were nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Messé is thrilled to be working again with Craig Lucas. In 2017, their last musical, Amélie, premiered on Broadway after successful runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Ahmanson Theatre (Los Angeles).

Sean Hartley is the director of musical theater at Kaufman Music Center in New York City, where he curates, produces and often hosts the series Broadway Close Up and Broadway Playhouse. As a lyricist, composer and/or playwright, his productions include Cupid and Psyche (with composer Jihwan Kim, Drama Desk nomination), Little Women (Syracuse Stage, Village Theater), Love and Real Estate (with composer Sam Davis) and Snow (ASCAP Harold Arlen Award for Best New Musical.) His works for television include the Disney Channel’s The Book of Pooh and Bear In the Big Blue House. His works for children include Number The Stars (from the Newbery Medal book by Lois Lowry), Sunshine (from a book by Ludwig Bemelmans, music by John O’Neill) and Vashti!, and Holy Moses! (both with books by Bob Kolsby.) He teaches at Special Music School, One Day University and Lucy Moses School.

Craig Lucas’s plays include Missing Persons, Reckless, Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss, God’s Heart, The Dying Gaul, Prayer For My Enemy, The Singing Forest, Ode To Joy and I Was Most Alive With You. His screenplays include Longtime Companion (Sundance Audience Award), The Secret Lives of Dentists (New York Film Critics Best Screenplay Award), Reckless, Blue Window and The Dying Gaul. His libretti include The Light in the Piazza, Two Boys, Orpheus in Love, Three Postcards and An American in Paris. He directed the world premiere of The Light in the Piazza, Saved Or Destroyed, Play Yourself and the films The Dying Gaul and Birds of America. He received the Excellence in Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Madge Evans-Sidney Kingsley Award, the Laura Pels/PEN Mid-career Award, the Greenfield Prize, LAMBDA Literary Award, Hull-Warriner Award (Dramatists Guild of America), Flora Roberts Award, Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Best Play Award (The Singing Forest). He has three Tony Award nominations.

South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) has been a launching pad for many plays and playwrights, including David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee.

Among the five readings at the 2019 festival is Prelude to a Kiss, a musical by Daniel Messé (music and lyrics), Sean Hartley (lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book). This SCR commission is adapted from Lucas’s earlier play—also an SCR commission that premiered here in 1988, was a hit on and off-Broadway and became a popular film. We caught up with Hartley and Lucas to talk about their literary lives and get glimpses into their favorite writing spaces.


Describe your favorite writing space.
My favorite writing space depends very much on the project, as well as what stage that project is in. For theater pieces, there is nothing better than a small room filled only with my collaborator(s), and a decent piano. The room does not have to have a view, or even be particularly nice​in fact, the more tomb-like the better in most cases. Hot coffee and hard chairs are a plus, but otherwise the fewer distractions the better. The best work is almost always done when collaborators come  together to work in just such a room. Of course, it's also important to do preliminary work by myself sketching musical/lyrical themes. For those times, I do prefer a nicer space, preferably with a window, and filled with cats.

Dan Messe

Dan Messé's workspace.

As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
I don't remember ever needing to read anything in secret at home. My brothers and I were raised by voracious readers, and one of my earliest memories is being read aloud to by my momhardly unique, except she would just read us whatever novel she happened to be reading at the time. I remember falling asleep to novels like The Poseidon Adventure (by Paul Gallico) and Ghost Story (by Peter Straub) not necessarily kid-friendly stuff, but I ate it up. We were also allowed to stay up late, just as long as we were reading quietly in our beds, so there was never any need to hide under the covers with a flashlight. I do have one memory of secretly reading a book in a high school math class. The novel was The Collector by John Fowles, and I remember being so upset by the ending that I let out an "Arrrgh!" right in the middle of Ms. Vinnick's lecture on quadratic functions.

Describe your favorite writing space.
These days, my favorite place to write is in my office at Kaufman Music Center. I come in an hour or so before I’m supposed to start work, or on a Sunday, and I put down all of the ideas that have been running through my mind. If I need a piano, I have all of these great Steinway grands in our music studios. I make notes all day long, wherever I am, so I always like to have pencil and paper with me, in case I get an idea.
Hartley Workspace

Sean Hartley's workspace.

Another favorite place is the Hermitage Artist Colony in Manasota Beach, Fla. Nothing but a cabin and the beach. Craig, Dan and I spent a week there in January, with no distractions and 24 hours a day to talk and think and write. It was heaven.

As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
Late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I seem to remember reading a Black Stallion book under the covers. When I was a teenager, and starting to realize I was gay, I probably read the play Boys In the Band in secret, not wanting to begin the discussion with my parents yet. And, I think probably once I wanted to read a Nancy Drew book, but was told that was for girls.

When did you know that you wanted to write musicals?
I was a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan in high school, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan before that, and I would fantasize writing musicals on Broadway from probably age 10 on. I remember some of the titles of my imaginary musicals: Consequences (which was kind of like Camelot) People Are Different (which was kind of like West Side Story) and Catch Me a Tiger Shark. Don’t know what that last one was supposed to be about, but I remember the tune of the title song.

What play or musical changed your life—and why?
A lot of shows have influenced me but I would mention two: the Peter Brook A Midsummer Night’s Dream production inspired me to look at the possibilities of theater in a new way. Seeing the mechanics behind the magic doesn’t have to spoil it, it can really enhance it. That kind of transparent theatricality is something we aspire to with Prelude to a Kiss.

And the original cast album of Company gave me a whole new sense of what a musical could be. Instead of simplifying life in order to make it palatable, songs can embrace all the ambiguity and subtleties of life. Interestingly, when I actually saw the show in production I was a little disappointed. What I’d pictured in my mind from listening to the album was so much richer!

What should we know about this adaptation of Prelude to a Kiss?
One of the first decisions we had to make [in adapting] Prelude to a Kiss was whether to set it in the 1980s, when the original play was written, or in the present day. We chose the present day. Thinking about the neuroses and anxieties and political polarization of the world now has really informed the project. We live in a world of incredible anger, tension, fear and danger and yet we continue to meet and fall in love, just as people have throughout time. That’s the source of one of our songs, “Love in the Age of Anxiety”, which has become a kind of a theme song for the show. We recognize that love is fragile, but tough, and is always worth fighting for and that’s what we celebrate.


Describe your favorite writing space.
Any place where the phone can’t ring, people aren’t talking, there are no surprises, animals or children underfoot, no loud trucks, deliveries, or music playing. The moon would be ideal.

As a kid, what story did you read in secret?
I never had to read in secret, my family let me lose hours, days and weeks in books and never asked what I was reading. My parents liked to go to cocktail parties and play golf (badly) and so they were happy I had found a friend in books.

When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright, composer or lyricist?
I still don’t know what I want to be.

What play or musical changed your life—and why?
Oklahoma! performed by my teachers. I was so frightened by their behavior, in their weird orange makeup under bright lights I felt that someone had to reorient the solar system to its correct axis or we would all spin out of control.

What should we know about this adaptation of Prelude to a Kiss?
It’s better than the play!

The PPF concert-reading of Prelude to a Kiss, directed by Artistic Director David Ivers, is Friday, April 26, at 1 p.m., on the Segerstrom Stage.

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