• The Sappho Project

W*rk Lab Finalist Spotlight: May-Elise & Chandra

We received an unprecedented 59 applications for The W*rk Lab, leaving us hopelessly in love with 59 profound writing teams. Because we were only able to support the development of four new musicals, but were so moved by the w*rk, we’ll be shining a light on our finalists for the next few weeks on Sappho Small Talk.

To begin, Sappho is our “muse.” Would you say you have a writing muse? If so, who?

May-Elise: Ooh, that’s a tough one! 

Chandra: I feel like it really depends on the project. For The First Year, we’ve been strongly inspired by all the biographies and memoirs we read -- by Kate Bornstein, Jayne County, Renee Richards, Christine Jorgensen... the list goes on. Most were artists in their own right, so that’s doubly inspiring! 

May-Elise: As musical theatre writers, though, we bonded over a common love of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. We keep coming back to how they approach character development, and define and subvert conventional dramatic structures. Early in our partnership, we watched The King and I together, and it influenced how we conceived the dual protagonists and integrated the ensemble of The First Year

Chandra: A shout out to Julia Cameron as well. The Artist’s Way offered some invaluable guidelines for the creative process. We’re especially fond of her invitation to “play,” and her suggestion to develop a nurturing space in the early stages of writing. 

May-Elise: Yes, that last point is something Chandra has been great at advocating! It’s easy to get discouraged as you begin creating new work. Once the muse is visiting, you really don’t want to scare her off with too much feedback—and criticism is definitely off limits. You need a supportive, encouraging, iterative environment. 

Chandra: Word.

May-Elise: So, we have many muses…

Chandra: In true mythological style!  Weren’t there, like, nine?

How are you finding your voice as a new writer within the musical theater landscape?

Chandra: writing? A lot?  That’s the only way I seem to find anything. By writing through it.  In good collaborative company, preferably.

May-Elise: I think it’s tricky to discuss ‘voice’ -- I feel like it sometimes gets you pigeonholed into a certain genre.  As a team, we really value letting the writing serve the project. 

Chandra: We’re also early in our career together, so I suspect that “voice” will crystallize as we take on more projects. For The First Year, we’ve been playing a lot with fragmentation, and how it manifests in both music and words. I’m not sure we’ll carry that flavor into our next project -- it’s so particular to this story. 

May-Elise: I definitely want to write a pseudo-opera for Josh Groban! 

Chandra: So on board. Lyrical and a little dark. The heart of The First Year with a Phantom of the Opera twist.   

May-Elise: No. I just want to hire Josh Groban!

Chandra: I don’t know if this answers the question about voice, but we’re really drawn to subjects that are... not super light and fluffy? We’re excited about tapping into musical theatre’s potential to create and explore psychological and emotional spaces.  

May-Elise: And nobody explores emotional spaces quite like Josh Groban.

What are the themes and ideas you're most excited about exploring within your writing? 

Chandra: Not to rip off our artistic statement, but -- we’re mildly obsessed with exploring gender, power dynamics, and the way both play out in communities, whether we’re born into or create them. 

May-Elise: And regardless of the stories or themes we’re writing, we want to create complex and interesting women for the stage. Especially young women. I feel like when I was in high school, there were such a small number of age-appropriate parts. You basically only had Liesle from The Sound of Music and Louisa from The Fantastics... Little Red from Into the Woods, if you were a belter…

Chandra: Maybe Fred from Once Upon a Mattress... although she’s usually played by a more mature actress...

May-Elise: Point being, there’s just not that much to sink your teeth into when you’re an aspiring performer and itching to get on stage. 

Chandra: So with The First Year, we wrote a show with seven principal parts for young actors -- college students -- and a large student ensemble. I mean, why not?  

Who is your target audience and how are you hoping to impact them? 

May-Elise: Our focus is definitely young adults, but ideally the work will appeal to... you know... everyone. 

Chandra: For our next project, we’re planning to tackle a story that spotlights a lot of the gray areas surrounding emotional abuse. The main character is a teenager.  If I was asked to give a talk on the subject in front of a YA audience... I wouldn’t know where to begin.

May-Elise: But there’s something so powerful about being able to sing through an experience—to give voice to things that are difficult to articulate—

Chandra: And to be in an audience, sharing a character’s story, and knowing— “that...that is what I am feeling...that’s a thing that actually happens.”  

May-Elise: It makes it have a conversation afterwards.  I think that’s what we want to cultivate. Conversation and empathy.

Is there a song that encapsulates your artistic identity? 

Chandra: Ooh... I’m pretty sure we’re both still hung up on “Omar Sharif” from The Band’s Visit. 

May-Elise: So gorgeous, so lyrical…

Chandra: Bridging all these different worlds without losing the thread of the moment...

May-Elise: I also love that, from a dance perspective, it’s a perfect American Smooth Viennese Waltz. When you hear it, you immediately feel this desire to move and dance to the music... you literally get swept into her world. 

Chandra: And that it’s so simple—fantasy and reality and moving between them. From a lyric perspective, I feel like that can be challenging to do without getting flashy or maudlin.

May-Elise:  But it also feels like the muse question…to choose one song...

Chandra: We could name at least eight more!

May-Elise Martinsen is a Brooklyn-based composer and performer. Her previous work includes 59 Days in New York, a 9-episode musical webseries that she wrote, produced and crowdfunded through Kickstarter.  Selections of 59 Days in New York have appeared at several film festivals and screenings in the NYC area, including the Chain NYC Film Festival, IndieWorks, and Katra Film Series.  May-Elise graduated with honors from Wellesley College, where she studied vocal performance and composition.  She was later commissioned by her alma mater to create two original compositions – one for a holiday video greeting, distributed to over 30,000 alums and students, and the other for the Madeleine Albright Institute.  She is currently working on a full-length stage musical with bookwriter-lyricist Chandra McClelland.

Chandra McClelland is a Brooklyn-based bookwriter-lyricist. Her work has been performed as part of Artemis Theatrical’s Hear Us Roar cabaret, American Opera Projects’ “Park & Bark,” Musical Theatre Factory’s 4×15 series, the University Of Georgia’s Next Act season, and the Badlands Opera Project’s inaugural season.  Current projects include a full-length musical written with composer May-Elise Martinsen, a full-length opera with music by Nathan Thatcher, a song cycle for soprano, viola, and piano with music by Joseph Sowa, and a 90-minute TFYA show with music by Tek Goo Kang.  Chandra has an MFA from NYU Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, an M.A. in Musical Theatre Criticism from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and a B.A. in English Literature from Kenyon College. Member of the Dramatists Guild of America.  


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