Some years ago Will Todd collaborated with New York performance artist and playwright David Simpatico to create their haunting music theatre work The Screams of Kitty Genovese. At times funny, sometimes brutal, always moving and ultimately devastating, the work is based on the true life story of the 1964 murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese. It’s a very powerful work which has had a number of productions (Boston Conservatory, Tete a Tete Opera, Edinburgh Festival, the 2006 New York Music Theatre Festival) and has received wide critical acclaim.
Hannah Green had the chance to ask some questions to Will and David about how they feel about the piece as they prepare to hear a new production at FEINSTEIN’S 54 BELOW in New York this October.
Hannah: How are you looking forward to the New York FEINSTEIN’S 54 BELOW presentation of The Screams of Kitty Genovese?
David: I’m incredibly excited to see the concert version of KITTY at FEINSTEIN’S 54 BELOW, especially because Will and I are going to be essentially hands off, and I’m eager to see what this new crop of theatre artists do with the piece. Director Steven Carl McCasland and Musical Director James Horan have assembled an awesome team of singing actors, headed by Sheri Sanders, who performed the role of Kitty Genovese back in 2006 when we performed it at the New York Music Theatre Festival; she’s joined by another original cast member, Brendan Byrnes, but everyone else is new to the piece. KITTY is designed as a full out theatrical experience, whether it is fully produced, or presented as an oratorio. And they are going to be using the score from our 2009 production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so I’m really excited to share the revamped piece to NYC. I’ve always considered this a very New York City story that exceeds the bounds of its locale, and it has played in lots of cities on both sides of the Atlantic; but having it presented in NYC is like coming back home.
Hannah: You first worked on this piece with David in 1998. Has the piece evolved during that time?
Will: When David and I first worked on Kitty in 1998 we had to discover the best way to collaborate. David is incredibly musical and has a strong instinct for the rhythmic impetus of the libretto. I needed to learn how to respond to this in a way which helped the story unfold. Kitty has had many versions during which time we have honed it down in a way which I hope maximises the impact of the story and characters and gives a strong presentation of the central themes of the work. It’s had at least 10 versions with workshops, readings and productions and at least 4 different orchestrations! Lots of work – but you need incredible patience and resilience to work in the theatre and I know I have improved greatly as a theatrical composer during the time I’ve worked on this piece.
Hannah: When did you first have the idea of turning the tragic Kitty Genovese story into a stage work?
David: Back in 1998, I got the idea from a painting by Jerome Witkin. THE SCREAMS OF KITTY GENOVESE is a large oil painting that depicts a woman sitting up in bed near an open window; her stunned face is turned towards the street beyond the window. That set my imagination churning. I wanted to explore the connection between a scream and an aria, two extreme forms of vocal expression. After I did some research, including reading the transcripts of the trial, I was hooked. I met Will later that year at the Performing Arts Lab in Kent, England, where we worked on the first 8 minutes of the piece. After giving Will the lyrics to a ‘love song for a man with a hunting knife’, he wrote the song WINSTON IN THE NIGHT in about twenty minutes. The song is a plaintive, disturbing howl of yearning sung by a man looking for the right woman; it embraced the twisted romance as well as the horrific agenda of the killer, Winston Mosley. I knew I had found the perfect collaborator in Will.
Hannah: What did you find challenging when you first worked with David’s libretto?
Will: There were a lot of words! David had essentially written a brilliant play in the first draft. In a sense it had everything it needed almost without music. The challenge in the first instance was to find ways to bring the text down without losing the power of the work and allowing the music to tell the story also. David is very good about changes, although I’ve learned that if he really wants to hang onto an idea he will! But that’s a good thing because he always does that for a strong reason. There was also a lot of non-rhyming material and I had to develop a kind of recitative style which would suit the drama. Again, that work has helped me grow as a composer.
Hannah: How do you feel about a younger generation of music theatre practitioners wanting to produce your work?
David: I couldn’t be happier that a new generation is going to explore this work. Will and I have worked with college students in the US and the UK and it has always been a wild phenomenon to see young artists embrace the raw passion and terror of the score. I think the story is timeless, and sadly, we see its resonance in the headlines on an almost daily occurrence, especially with the advent of streaming horrific events that are witnessed by a generation eager to archive their every action, including violence and abuse. I hope this cast digs deep into the material and rips the theatre open, and shares this cautionary tale of what happens when neighbours turn away from helping one another.
Hannah: Will – are you planning to travel to NYC to hear the performance?h
Will: I am and I’m so excited. David and I will not be inputting in this production so it will be amazing/scary to see where they take the piece. Theatre needs to live beyond its creators if it is to survive at all so this will be a good test. I’m so grateful to Steven Carl McCasland and James Horan for giving this piece another platform.
Feinstein’s 54 Below Supper Club in New York City, US