Three Jews Walk into a Room…and Create a Musicalby Pat Launer April 27, 2012
By Pat Launer
Okay, fess up. One of your guilty pleasures is Reality TV. Whether it’s food or fashion, catfights, celebs or survival, there’s something appealing and appalling that compels you to keep coming back to these proliferating programs.
“I watch some ironically, and some non-ironically,” confesses funny, smart, sardonic playwright Itamar Moses, who’s written the book and co-wrote the lyrics for “Nobody Loves You,” a world premiere musical with a reality dating show-within-the-show. The show debuts at the Old Globe Theatre May 9-June 17.
Moses’ reality TV time leans toward “Project Runway,” but he’s been watching “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” “for research purposes,” he says.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t derive a certain amount of pleasure from these shows,” he admits. “It’s almost hypnotic: elemental, primal clashes over love and connection.”
The comical, irreverent musical is about the search for real love on the set of a reality TV dating show called “Nobody Loves You,” during which contestants are voted out and considered unloved. Jeff, a philosophy grad student, cynically joins the show to try and win back his ex, but he breaks all the rules and blows the game wide open. Then (inevitably?), Jeff simultaneously falls in love and becomes seduced by fame. He’s forced to face the ultimate American culture conundrum: Can he find the courage to trade the love of his fans for the love of his life?
“The play,” Moses explains, “uses reality TV as a metaphor for thinking of ourselves as the lead in a fantasy romance, finding comfort in being watched, the eyes on us filling some hole inside. The characters come to realize it’s just a pale echo of something that fills a real human need — just a few pairs of eyes, from people who really care, that gives life meaning.
“We all know, intellectually, that so much of reality TV is fake,” Moses says, “though we don’t know exactly how much. We definitely see genuinely exhilarating emotions occurring in the moment on these shows. But the question always is, ‘What is real?’”
This question comes up repeatedly in the new musical, which Moses is creating with two fellow 30-something Yalies: composer/co-lyricist Gaby Alter and director Michelle Tattenbaum. All share a love of theater, music and a strong Jewish background.
Moses in the Promised Land
Itamar (pronounced EET-a-mar) grew up in Berkeley, in “an academic, intellectual, hyperverbal” household, where books were important and there was “a lot of discussion of politics and ideas.” This, he now realizes, “inevitably distanced us from the culture around us. Things like American sports, for example, are mystifying to me.” Plus, his parents were immigrants (from Israel), so he comes at his writing from “an ever so slight outsider perspective.”
His folks met in the Israeli army. His father, who was born in Israel, was raised in Italy and London and attended college in Switzerland. When he returned to Israel to fulfill his military duty, it was assumed he didn’t know the language. So he was signed up for Hebrew class. Itamar’s mom was an officer in charge of the army Hebrew School.
“The joke is, he was already fluent,” says Moses, “so he had nothing better to do than flirt with the teacher.”
Moses’ father is now an associate professor at UC Berkeley, and his mother is a psychotherapist.
When they moved to Berkeley, they found a thriving Jewish and Israeli immigrant community. But they weren’t comfortable in either the Reform or Orthodox congregations.
When Itamar was 12, a Conservative synagogue, Netivot Shalom, opened, “and that was a place that fit.” The family started attending regularly, and Itamar had the right spot for his bar mitzvah.
His elementary school years were spent at Techiya Jewish Day School. As a teenager, he continued Hebrew school and attended weekend retreats with a Bay Area Jewish Youth Group called Midrasha, “which mainly practiced the Northern California acoustic-guitar-based variety of Judaism, a kind of hippie Judaism.”
Throughout his formative years, “there was a feeling of community and friendship I still carry with me,” Moses says.
“My parents gave me an Israeli name” (which means ‘date palm’). And, as he told the International Association for Jewish Theatres, in a brilliantly funny speech in 2r10 (accessible online, and well worth the read), that decision ensured, “among other things, that I’d have to introduce myself at least twice to everyone I met for the rest of my life.”
His experiences in public school inspired one of his earliest plays, “Yellowjackets,” about the race, class and immigrant problems at Berkeley High.
After graduating from Yale, Moses went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts degree at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. With his early playwriting successes, the canny, quick-witted writer was hailed as a “theatrical wunderkind,” by critics and by the acclaimed intellectual playwright Tom Stoppard, to whom he’s often been compared (sometimes favorably, sometimes not). But though Stoppard has Jewish roots, his characters never show it.
“Friends say I often base my characters on myself,” Moses says, “which I unconvincingly deny. I don’t write explicitly Jewish characters. But there is something very Jewish in the way I paint my characters.
“In ‘Nobody Loves You,’ Jeff is brooding, neurotic, mentally spiraling out of control. While there are not specifically Jewish issues or themes in the play, there’s a sort of implicit Jewishness, as there are in many of my characters, especially the males.
“This isn’t just satire,” Moses says of his latest creation. “I think it’s a funny, light show with something deep and moving. It goes to a very funny place to get to a poignant place. Music can bypass your psychological defenses and go right to your emotions.”
This is Moses’ first produced musical (he’s also working on a musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s celebrated, Brooklyn-set novel, “Fortress of Solitude”).
Three of his plays (all smart, incisive and thought-provoking) have been seen at the Old Globe, including two world premieres (“The Four of Us” in 2007 — when he was just 29 — and “Back Back Back” in 2008). A marvelous staged reading of “Bach in Leipzig” was presented at the Globe in 2004. Moses spent the year prior to the opening of “Back Back Back” as playwright-in-residence at the Globe.
“I keep coming back because of their continued willingness to produce my work,” he quips. “That’s the glib — and true — answer. It’s been a very welcoming place.”
Which brings us to the collaboration on “Nobody Loves You.”
Gaby Alter grew up in Berkeley. His parents and Itamar’s were friends. Though a few years apart, they attended the same Jewish day school, high school, college and grad school. Their families shared many Seders, and both men recently flew up to Berkeley during the first week of rehearsals, to be with their families for Passover.
“I always admired him as a musician,” Moses says of Alter. “Plus, he’s a smart, funny guy. In the Bay Area, he composed hip, cool rock operas. In 2003, he moved to New York and entered the musical theatre program at Tisch [Moses had been in the playwriting program]. I said we should probably write a musical together. We get along, we grew up together, we have a similar sensibility.”
Meanwhile, Moses put in two years’ time writing for television (“Men of a Certain Age” and “Boardwalk Empire”). And when he thought about getting together with Gaby Alter, he says, “I had this notion of reality TV in a musical context. What it means to the culture and its effect.” And a partnership was born.
Alter also came from “a Berkeley intellectual, literary household.” His father is a professor of comparative literature and Near-Eastern studies. He’s taught the Old Testament and Hebrew literature (he’s currently translating the Old Testament into modern English), and he always addressed his young son in Hebrew. Alter’s mother translates books from French to English. The family lived several summers in Israel, and Alter went back himself at age 18, to live on a kibbutz.
He attended Wesleyan, a “very liberal liberal arts college in Connecticut, where one-third of the student population was Jewish,” and he had an interdisciplinary major in humanities. He wrote rock musicals for a decade in Berkeley and was thrilled that the Tisch School was “very open to less traditional types of musicals.”
When Alter and Moses got together to write, the composer “wanted the show to have the feel of a pop musical, because it’s a pop-culture subject. The score is upbeat, melodic, rock-driven, like songs from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Some songs are kind of like Journey or Foreigner, others like the Police or Squeeze, U2 or Coldplay. But it’s all very inclusive, and in workshops, the show has appealed to people of various ages.”
Moses describes the show’s music as “contemporary, indie pop-rock that tonally fits the world and personality of the characters. Gaby has a beautiful melodic sense. His music has a drive to it, but it doesn’t overwhelm the ability to convey meaning. He has a very unaffected and honest musical voice. I love his music. It seems simple, but it’s subtle and complex.”
“The show is a lot about finding love,” says composer Alter, “so the music has different romantic styles.”
Alter’s reality TV research was a little tricky, since he doesn’t own a television. But he’s seen enough to form strong opinions.
“It’s very powerful. There’s a sense of voyeurism, a mix of the public and the private. But the whole idea of ‘Can you believe anything that’s on reality TV?’ leads to a cynical distrust of the culture — and of love. Ultimately, the characters learn that there is such a thing as real life, and real emotions that are internal and can’t be filmed.”
Alter sees “Nobody Loves You” as “a very Jewish show, just not explicitly. The sense of humor will be very familiar to Jewish people. The central character, Jeff, is a very cerebral, very Jewish type of guy who defends himself against the stupidity of pop culture but then gets sucked into it. He’s played by a wonderful Jewish actor, Adam Kantor, who’s like a ‘Jewish dreamboat,’ really Jewish and really handsome — with a really great voice.”
One of the themes of the show, according to Alter, is “differentiating false emotional highs from real ones. It’s a lesson we all have to keep learning. It’s so easy to get seduced — by TV or fast food or, as in the case of one character, alcohol. Our culture is so bound up in an obsession with quick, easy highs. You have to guard against that.
“And the musical is also about opening up to someone, someone that’s right even if not the flashiest option.”
Like Moses, Alter lives in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn. And walking distance away, in the nearby neighborhood of Prospect Heights, is their college friend, Michelle Tattenbaum, the director who’s helming the new work and bringing it to life on the Old Globe stage.
Pulling it all Together
Director Michelle Tattenbaum first met Itamar Moses when she cast him in her senior thesis project at Yale — coincidentally, an intellectually challenging play by Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia.”
“He sent me a really passionate note about why he wanted to be in the show,” Tattenbaum recalls. “That email presaged the way I connect to him as a writer.”
And connect she does.
Moses considers her “one of the people I most trust to understand what I put on the page and make it come alive.”
Tattenbaum has directed four Moses plays: three world premieres and a Los Angeles premiere. For the past five years, she’s been intimately involved in the evolution of this new show, primarily serving as dramaturge. And that’s a perfect fit for her, since she spent three years at the Manhattan Theatre Club focused on the development of new musicals.
“When we first started working on it,” Tattenbaum says of “Nobody Loves You” (originally called “Reality!”), “I said, ‘Hurry up!’ This reality TV thing won’t be around forever.’ Now it’s so obvious it’s not a short-lived, trendy way of pseudo-documentary storytelling.
“Right now, in our culture, we really want stories to be true. We’d rather it be real than something from someone’s imagination. Because we hope our own stories are a perfect narrative, too, with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end.
“The other big thread in the show — also very timely right now — is our obsession with fame as an end unto itself, not necessarily achieved because of any particular accomplishment. As we’ve seen so many times, the chance to be adored by the unnamed millions messes with your head and makes the important things you know fly out the window.
“But at bottom,” Tattenbaum concedes, “it’s a romantic comedy. With something deeper to say.”
Tattenbaum will shepherd a cast of eight, accompanied by four musicians, situated below the White’s arena stage.
“It’s a big show,” she says. “There are many different locations, which we’ll represent with lighting, sound, costumes and staging.” These are skills she honed during two Drama League directing fellowships.
Her early years were spent in Newton, a suburb of Boston, where her observant family attended Temple Israel, a Reform congregation. Her older sister is a reform Rabbi, director of the Center for Jewish Culture at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Her brother-in-law is a professor of Judaic studies at Brown University.
She attended Hebrew school through 12th grade and was actively involved in Hillel at Yale. Every year, she continues to read the Torah at the temple, on Rosh Hashanah. Tattenbaum taught Hebrew school for six years, both at a synagogue and through private tutoring. Now, with a 2½- year-old (she’s the only married one of the three collaborators), she’ll have her own home tutoring to do. Her daughter is off to a strong start; she memorized the first of the Four Questions — in Hebrew, in song — for this year’s Seder. Not surprisingly, Tattenbaum’s favorite non-research reality TV show is “Super Nanny.”
The freelance director currently lives in Brooklyn, within walking distance of both her twin sister and her mother, not to mention, conveniently, her two collaborators.
With this level of collective wit, talent and intelligence, it’s likely that “Nobody Loves You” will be smart and funny. And (subtly or not), Jewish.
The world premiere of the musical “Nobody Loves You” runs May 9-June 17 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Regular performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p. m., Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. There’s a 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, June 6; no matinee performance on Saturday, June 9.
Tickets (prices start at $29, with discounts for previews, seniors, full-time students and those 29 years of age and under) are available at (619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623) or at www.theoldglobe.org.