When Michael Johnson talked to his composition professor about taking what is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy and turning it into a musical comedy, he wasn’t expecting the response he got. She told him it was a great idea.
“She called my bluff, so I had to write it,” he said.
He had no idea that, a few months later, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus would be playing to hundreds in New York City.
Johnson, a member of the class of 2009, was one of two William and Mary students to have original works performed at the New York International Fringe Festival this summer. The Fringe Festival is the largest multi-arts festival in North America, with more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues—a total of more than 1,300 performances.
Along with Johnson’s Tragedy! (A Musical Comedy), Emily Rossi’s play, The Hollow Men was performed at the festival. Rossi’s play is set during the Holocaust and is based around T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Holocaust and, in 10th grade, I had written a short story about a girl who had been prisoner at Auschwitz,” said, Rossi, a member of the class of 2008. “Last year, after my parents had moved, I was digging through some boxes and came across the story and it struck me that I should combine my interest in Holocaust studies with my love for theatre.”
Rossi said one of the key elements of her play was created by accident.
“As I was writing the final scene—I was writing it first as it was the only one I really had fully formed in my head—I decided I needed a really emphatic final line and the line ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper’ popped into my head from T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ she said. “I checked online to see the full poem and realized the poem itself acted as a really beautiful counterbalance to the story I was trying to tell, and so combined them to create the final product we have today.”
“I recognized from all of the critiques I read that most scholars hate Titus Andronicus—and for good reason. It’s not very well put together, and it showed me for the first time that Shakespeare had flaws—but I really loved it for that,” he said.
When he came to William and Mary, Johnson was in a performance of Titus with Shakespeare in the Dark. While talking with some of the other actors about funny lines they had wanted to say in the performance, the idea of turning the dark play into a musical comedy began to take shape.
Both Rossi and Johnson said they were encouraged in developing their plays by professors at the College.
Johnson approached Sophia Serghi, associate professor of music and composition, with his idea and she encouraged him to pursue it.
“Really, anywhere else I don’t think I could have done this,” Johnson said. “If I told someone I want to write a musical, and they had asked me, ‘What is it about?’ And I said I want to base it on Titus Andronicus, I think Sophia Serghi is the only teacher in the world who would say, ‘Oh, I think that’s a great idea!’ Because it doesn’t really sound like a great idea. It sounds like a pretty awful idea, actually.”
Rossi said she was helped from start to finish in writing her play by Laurie J. Wolf, associate theatre professor.
“It was her idea to send it to the NYC Fringe, and, when we were accepted, she agreed to direct the show for me, which was absolutely incredible,” said Rossi.
Johnson’s musical ran in the Fringe Festival Aug. 21-26, and was performed five times over six days with a cast that included several William and Mary students. It was billed as a “high show,” and was marketed to high school students. One reviewer called the musical “my favorite of the Fringe plays I saw this year,” and another noted it was “full of sick humor, social commentary and a terrific cast.”
“New York was fantastic,” said Johnson. “Everyone was very nice and supportive. We became good friends with the staff at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and we got a ton of reviews. Not all were good, of course, but that’s not the way the show was designed, and we were happy that we got some stronger reactions.”
Rossi’s play ran in the festival five times between Aug. 10 and Aug. 19 in the Flamboyan Theatre. Like Johnson’s musical, her play also included a cast with several William and Mary students, including Rossi herself. The official Fringe Festival review said that “in her treatment of the prisoners, especially Anna, Rossi taps into a vein of moral ambiguity that’s rarely seen in writing about the Holocaust.”
Rossi said the experience was amazing and responses they received were incredible.
“One of the actors in the show, Billy Finn, is a New York native and brought his family to the show, including his grandfather, who happened to be POW in a Nazi camp during World War II,” said Rossi. “Afterwards when I asked Billy what his grandfather thought, he said that the feeling his grandfather got about the camp during the show was exactly the feeling he had about the camp when he was there. That was quite possibly one of the greatest compliments I could have gotten from someone as a writer and an actor.”
Both Rossi and Johnson said they have taken away a new confidence from their experience with the Fringe Festival.
“Sometimes it’s easy in theatre as a college student to look ahead and get a certain sense of pessimism, but this summer reminded me that if you continue to work at what you want to do, opportunities will open up,” said Rossi, who is now working on her own adaptation of a Shakespearean play.
Johnson is now working on an adaptation of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He said his goal when he started writing Tragedy! was merely to finish something. He never imagined how far his idea could go.
“Getting to conduct my own musical ranks way up there as one of the greater experiences of my life,” he said.