In October and November 2009, Light Opera Works ran C'est la vie, local composer Gregg Opelka's "refreshingly new, witty, funny and slickly sophisticated musical" (Chicagocritic.com) about two fading chanteuses who take over the cabaret one night to give the show of their lives, with their own droll and lively songs! Photo credit: Chris Ocken, Ocken Photography ©2009 Pictured l. to r. Jeremy Ramey, Jennifer Chada, Gregg Opelka, Kelly Anne Clark. Set by Courtney O'Neill.
We sat down with Gregg recently to ask him about the show and about being a playwright.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS: What had you been working on prior to C’est la vie?
GREGG OPELKA I began work on C’est la vie in 2001 and it premiered in 2002 at Theatre Building Chicago. Prior to that, in 2000 I was working in collaboration with Todd Mueller and Hank Boland on a big Wild West shoot-em-up musical called The Singin' Cowboy, very different in both storyline and idiom from C’est la vie. This was the same team that created Soup du Jour which Light Opera Works produced in 2002 on its Second Stage. After C’est la vie I wrote a show called Jingle Man about an ad jingles writer who gets a little surprise help from Tchaikovsky’s ghost; it’s the only show I’ve written that has never been produced. But I’ll get back to polishing it and peddling it soon.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS How does a new musical get produced? Do you “workshop” your shows? What is that like?
GREGG In general when you’re creating a new work, you go through a series of readings or “workshops.” The readings can be casual private affairs or open to the public. I used to go all out with elaborately staged public readings, but later found that you really just need the actors standing at music stands. A good actor can pull off a reading with a minimum of movement really well. So I’ve done that with my plays, and we did it with C’est la vie, of course. The public reading gives you valuable instant feedback from the audience.
C’est la vie actually had two “out-of-town” try-outs before being produced in Chicago, the first time at The Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph Michigan, and at Footlights Players in Michigan City Indiana. At the Box Factory we were able to set the audience up at cabaret seating, tables with candles, small sofas, all of which gave it a really authentic feel.
I wrote my first show when I was 21 or 22, and it wasn’t a very good show, but it really taught me how to write a show—the variety of song needed in the score. One important trick I discovered back then is that it pays to reward the audience early on with a real toe-tapper of a song. The audience is usually interested in the opening number automatically, but a really fun, hummable second or third song renews your bargain with them and makes them want to stay on the train. You need to grab the audience with a catchy, memorable song, right up front, and get them in your camp. You also have to balance the type of songs you write. I was good at writing ballads but you can’t have an entire show full of ballads. Most stories depict a variety of moods and emotions and the songs should reflect that variety. The songs exist to tell the story in sound.
While in college, I fell in love with Cole Porter, along with Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe. I realized that I wanted to do that kind of writing, musicals—to make people tap their feet and smile. My song in this show, It’s a Crazy World N’est ce pas? , I hope captures the tone of the whole show; it’s a little piece of ear candy that I want the audience to be humming as they leave.
I’ve written 10 musicals—with a number of collaborators—and nine of them have been produced. Writing a musical is a lot like golf—you’re always trying to improve your game.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS Is play writing a solo or collaborative exercise for you?
GREGG I’ve written both solo and collaborative shows, and it really depends on the story. I couldn’t really have written C’est la vie with any of my prior co-writers (NB: Jane Boyd, Jack Helbig, Todd Mueller, Hank Boland), because they just weren’t as obsessed as I was by the idioms and style of 1950s Parisian cabaret. I, on the other hand, fell in love with that music and that era while in college. But I didn’t want to write strictly an Edith Piaf bio-musical; bio-musicals are very hard to pull off. And, I would naturally have had to use her music, so then I wouldn’t get the opportunity to write in that wonderful French cabaret style. And that was just too much fun to pass up.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS What are you working on now?
GREGG I’m trying my hand at a film. Because, well, why not?, it’s something I’ve never done.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you do this for a living, or do you have a day job?
GREGG Well, actually a night job. About three-fourths of my income comes from royalties and the other quarter from playing piano. I am the piano player at Tommy Gun's Garage, a roaring-20s gangster dinner theater and Chicago’s longest running-show. Like all authors, I still do some self-promotion and networking, but at this point in my career all my plays are handled by Dramatic Publishing and they do a fine job of promoting my works and getting my plays produced.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you feel like growing up in the Chicago suburbs has informed your work?
GREGG Well, in fact, I grew up first on the south side of Chicago until I was seven—and still remember the old neighborhood with nostalgia. Then my parents moved to Glenview—taking me with them, fortunately—where I spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence. This is something people always ask: do you write about yourself? And actually, no, I don’t like to write about myself. I really don’t think I’m very interesting. Playwrights don’t fight wars, or jump out of airplanes or climb mountains, but we like to write about people who do.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you love theater? Or hate it? In other words, has theater that you’ve loved inspired you to create, or has there been so much bad theater that you wanted to try to “fix it?”
GREGG Oh I love it. I love the theater. If you’re going to work in theater you have to love it, because it’s too hard to do if you don’t. And you have to have rhinoceros skin because you’re going to get beaten up from time to time. Not everyone will like what you write, and that’s all right. As long as enough people do—as long as you find that unique audience your voice speaks to—that’s what matters.
LIGHT OPERA WORKS Light Opera Works is known mostly for doing classic musicals and operetta and our audiences really love it when we do the familiar works. So what should our patrons be thinking when they walk into a musical they’ve never seen before?
GREGG That’s a great question. Audiences should just remember that once, no one had heard The Sound of Music or Kiss Me, Kate. We just want you to walk into the theater with that same openness and air of expectation that audiences had when they walked into those classic shows for the first time 50 years ago. Musical writers today are only trying to do exactly what Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter and others of that golden era were trying to do—delight your senses.
The playwright with Kelly Anne Clark (right) as Dominique Jolie, the sexy songbird who puts the ooze in chanteuse and Jennifer Chada as Fatiguée Fourbue, the woman who's seen it all, done most of it, and now just sings about it. Costumes by Darcy Elora Hofer, Hair and make up by Marvin Riebe. Photo credit: Chris Ocken © 2009