Four Questions With Dan Collins & Julianne Wick Davis

Tania Thompson
 | Jun 10, 2021
Collins & Wick Davis
Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis

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.

The final work for the 2021 digital festival is Harold & Lillian, with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis. The story, based on the documentary film by Daniel Raim, is a Hollywood love story. The musical is about storyboard artist Harold Michelson and film researcher Lillian Michelson. Beginning with their elopement after Harold came home from World War II, their marriage spanned six decades—during which they overcame daunting personal challenges and made surprising movie magic.

In an email exchange, the pair talked about their favorite places to write and compose, the musicals that changed their lives and more.

Writing Spaces
Collins' favorite writing spot (left) on his dining room table and Wick Davis' ​at Ucross in Wyoming.

About Dan Collins

He wrote the book and lyrics for the musicals TrevorSouthern Comfort and The Pen, all with composer Julianne Wick Davis. Trevor received its world premiere at Writers Theatre (Chicago-area), where it won the Jeff Award for Best New Work; it’s set to open off-Broadway as soon as the New York City theatre season resumes. Southern Comfort was produced by the Public Theater, following productions at Barrington Stage and Cap21 (Critics’ Pick, New York Times and Time Out NYC); it received the Jonathan Larson Award, a GLAAD Media Award and was nominated for Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards. The Pen (Critics’ Pick, New York Times) was produced by Inner Voices and received a Solo Performance Drama Desk Award nomination for its star, Nancy Anderson. His other projects include Wood (starring Tony Award-winner Cady Huffman) and When We Met (Eugene O’Neill National Musical Theater Conference; Collaborative Arts Project/CAP 21). He was selected as a Dramatist Guild Fellow. Collins received his MFA in musical theatre writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his BFA in playwriting at The Theatre School of DePaul University. 

About ​Julianne Wick Davis

She is the recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award (2012) and was the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for Outstanding Female Musical Theater Composer (2018). Named one of the 50 Women to Watch in 2020 by the Broadway Woman’s Fund, Davis also received a Lotte Lenya Competition Songbook Series Award (2020) from the Kurt Weill Foundation. Trevor, her collaboration with Dan Collins (book and lyrics), had its world premiere at Writers Theatre, Chicago, and received a Joseph Jefferson Award for Outstanding New Musical. Trevor is slated to open off-Broadway in 2021. Southern Comfort, also with Collins, received a production at The Public Theater and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, as well as received Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards nominations for Outstanding Musical. Southern Comfort was part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Convention (2012) and received a production at Barrington Stage Company, a reading at Playwrights Horizons and a developmental production at Collaborative Arts Project/CAP 21, which garnered a GLAAD Media Award and Critics’ Picks from Time Out NYC and The New York TimesThe Pen, with Collins, produced for for Inner Voices was another New York Times Critics’ Pick. When We Met (music & lyrics), was a part of the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference, York Theatre Company’s NEO Development Series, Broadway Bound Concert Series and received a developmental production at CAP21. The Willard Suitcases (book, music, & lyrics) had its world premiere at American Shakespeare Center (2019) and was named one of the Top Ten 2019 Theatrical Events by The Washington Post and was featured in the Broadway Bound Series at Merkin Hall. Lautrec at the St. James (music) with John Dietrich (book and lyrics), was selected for the NAMT Conference (2019) and will be a part of the Applause Concert Series at the Olney Theatre Center (2021). She has also contributed two songs for Shakina Nayfack’s Manifest Pussy and was commissioned to write a song for Lonny Price’s Lincoln Center Originals series. She is a Dramatist Guild Fellow, a York Theatre Company NEO 9 Emerging Writer and a Sundance Fellow at Ucross. She received her MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, where she is currently on faculty. Davis is an ASCAP and Dramatist Guild member. 

What’s your favorite place to write?

Dan Collins: Pre- and post-pandemic, my favorite place to be able to write has always been the dining room table of my home in the Hudson Valley. It's the perfect combination of a place that is both formal and comfortable to me; so, it keeps me focused enough to stay sharp but not under so much pressure that I can't be creative. Also, the table is at a good height for comfortable typing on the laptop!  

Julianne Wick Davis: I have a little writing station in my small New York City apartment where most of my writing happens. It’s near a window so, when I need to stop and think or need to take a break from staring at screens, I can gaze out the window and look down and watch the rhythm of people in my neighborhood jogging or pushing strollers down the sidewalk. There’s something calming about knowing that the world is percolating outside my writing cave. It has been especially reassuring during the pandemic. Is this spot my favorite place to write? Well, I get the most writing done in this spot. But several years ago, I had an artist residency at Ucross in Northern Wyoming. There, the piano was next to a series of large windows and the strollers and joggers were replaced with leaping deer and strutting turkeys. It was a different rhythm and a bigger cave with more windows, and I wrote a lot there too. Weeks later, when I returned to NYC, I was happy to sit down at my little writing station again; and I realized that what defined my favorite place to write was not the size or location. My writing cave just needs a window. 

As a child, did you read stories in secret?

Dan: I can't really recall reading anything in secret as a child, other than frantically flipping through romance novels at the store in hopes of happening upon whatever scene the cover was depicting—and never finding it during the split-second opportunity.  

Julianne: I have two older brothers. Growing up, I would often sneak in their room when they weren’t home and read books that weren’t appropriate for my age. One of those books was about all kinds of unexplained mysteries—the paranormal, UFOs, Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. My heart would race while reading the stories of people’s encounters with these mysteries and I would lose track of time and place until the sound of my brothers coming home would pull me back to the present. I had to jump up on one of their twin beds, put the book back on the shelf, jump off the bed and run out of their bedroom before I was discovered and grumbled at for trespassing. Now that I think about it, the thrill of reading that book might have been more about the possibility of getting caught and less about the unexplained mysteries.

When did you know you wanted to be a playwright and a composer?

Dan: I always loved writing stories growing up, especially the dialogue. Then in junior high, we watched a video about the musical Les Misérables that completely fascinated me. I think it was that moment that I decided I wanted to write the words that people sang—and the words that people said before and after they sang!

Julianne: For as long as I could remember, there was a piano in our home. Before I could read music, I’d sit at the piano and make up my own songs. I even wrote my version of an opera when I was four! I continued to write dramatic songs throughout my life, and I loved musicals and being in musicals, but I let people in my world convince me that this was merely a hobby and not really a viable career. I spent a lot of time following other paths, while always finding ways to keep creating musical theatre. It wasn’t until I discovered the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts that I realized it was time to stop listening to the naysayers and do what I really loved. Within a year of that realization, I was accepted at Tisch, moved to New York and never looked back.

What theatrical work changed your life?

Dan: Les Misérables was the theatre show that first "obsessed" me. I had to know everything I could about it and then, when I couldn't learn anything else (this was pre-internet!), I just started filling in the blanks with my imagination. I outlined a whole musical that was completely from Eponine's point-of-view and there were lots of ballads in it.  

Julianne: I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to see live theatre growing up. Being able to watch movie musicals on TV was a godsend. When I was eight or nine, one TV channel started doing a weeklong late-night movie musical festival every summer. I loved that week so much that I begged my parents to let me stay up late and watch all of them. That’s the first time I saw West Side Story and I was hooked from the opening whistle in the score with the aerial view of New York City streets. The score, the dancing…it was unlike anything I had witnessed before. I think I stood in front of the TV for the entire duration of the musical with my mouth open. Since then, I have had many a transcendent experience sitting in the audience and watching musical theatre but discovering West Side Story on our Zenith television set was the most life changing.

What should audiences know about Harold & Lillian?

Dan: That it is a story about being ln love. I find that a lot of stories tend to be about falling in or falling out of love, so one of the many things that I find so special about Harold and Lillian’s story is how it explores what "love" and "being in love" means to one couple over the decades—not just at the beginning or the end.  

Julianne: Harold and Lillian Michelson’s life together is truly an extraordinary story of devotion. But what I personally find inspiring is how remarkable Lillian was and still is—her strength to overcome so many challenges throughout her life, how she approached everything with inventiveness, bravery and optimism. Even when being a woman in a man’s world during the oppressive sexism of her time threatened to slow her down, she was determined to push the boundaries. In our post-pandemic world, I’m looking forward to sitting down with Lillian in person and telling her just how inspired I have been while finding the music to tell their story.

Watch this video interview with the writer and composer for #PPFPlaywrights.

Learn more about Harold & Lillian and the 2021 Pacific Playwrights Festival.