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From Screen to Stage: Getting Spies to Sing

Sympathy Jones: The New Secret Agent MusicalSympathy Jones: The New Secret Agent Musical is a comedy set in the 1960s that brings the spy genre to the musical stage. Here, its authors Masi Asare (music/lyrics) and Brooke Pierce (book) talk about their approach to telling a secret agent story through song.

In the beginning, writing a spy musical seemed like it would be easy fun. In fact, we wondered why more people hadn’t done it. After all, that world of secret agents, outrageous villains, crazy henchmen, and super cool gadgets is so lively and colorful that it begged to sing.

But we soon learned that the spy genre is about more than larger-than-life characters. Here are a few staples of spydom that caused us trouble—and how we tackled the challenges.

The Opening Number
Masi wrote a splashy Shirley Bassey-style number called “Time Will Tell” to serve as our classic ‘Bond theme song’. The thing is, unlike in the James Bond movies, there’s no credit sequence in theater. And to just have our nightclub singer character, Ann, simply croon the song without anything happening visually would be too boring.

Our Solution: We decided to kick things off with a teaser book scene that leads into a sort of panoramic slow-action musical sequence. While Ann sings the song from the stage of a local nightclub, the world of the show unfolds around her and the audience watches as different characters pursue their aims (e.g. one agent follows a bad guy, our villainess confers with her henchman, our heroine discovers a clue), interspersing the action with snippets of dialogue.

The Action Scenes
Spy movies and novels are usually action-packed. Of course we love action in the theater, but action movie action is something else entirely. We’re talking about bloody shoot-outs, high-speed car chases, and narrow escapes from fiery explosions. Putting sequences like this on a stage is difficult enough, but when you’re writing a musical, you have to ask yourself at what point in the midst of all that does your hero actually sing?

Our Solution: Making the action ‘sing’ required a lot of creativity, particularly in the songwriting. One song, “You Don’t Have a Clue,” is literally two characters, Sympathy Jones and her partner Henry Greene, having a (verbal) fight. Another song, the high-speed “Think Fast,” has Sympathy and Henry navigating a series of dangerous traps as they break into the villain’s compound—in the lyric, they breathlessly warn one another of the various traps as they encounter them. Past productions have devised some really creative staging ideas for this number, with evil agents setting up the obstacles using simple props (e.g. a series of hula hoops as a tunnel, electrical tape as lasers).

There is also quite a bit of action included in some book scenes. Rather than having our secret agents always rely on guns as the weapon of choice, we establish Sympathy as a martial arts aficionado early on. This angle gives some of the fight scenes a more theatrical feel and provides the opportunity for some fun fight choreography.

The Complicated Plot
When spies are not in the midst of high-octane action, they are often embroiled in complicated espionage plots. These can be hard enough to follow in the movies, but in the theater (especially at a musical comedy) people are likely to get bored, confused, and restless if they have to listen to a lot of hushed conversation about double agents, underground cabals, and rendezvous points.

Our Solution: Initially we tried to embrace this aspect of the genre. In fact, at one point we actually wrote in a brand new character to add even more plot to the story, but we later erased her entirely and decided to accept that it’s best if a musical is just not quite as complicated as a spy movie. That said, Sympathy Jones does still have a number of twists and clues to follow, and during the development process (which included various readings and productions) we worked to get just the right amount of exposition in to make sure that everything was clear. Exposition is always a tricky thing, no matter what genre you’re working in, and we did our best to make it fast and funny.

The Crazy Gadgets
From the Bond movies to Get Smart, clever gadgets designed for secret agents to use out in the field are often one of the highlights of the spy world. But on stage, where there are no close-ups to show the intricacies of such gadgets, or where there may not be enough resources available to create something so specialized, we felt like we needed an alternative.

Our Solution: Instead of having a gadget guru, we introduce Caprice Nova, Sympathy’s best friend and a designer in the Department of Disguisement. We found that focusing on clever disguises was more theatrical, fit nicely into the plot, and gave us a chance to create a unique character whose job combines a love of fashion and technical wizardry.

At the end of the day, the multi-year process of writing and refining Sympathy Jones was a lot of fun, even if it was equally challenging. “Translating” the spy genre for the theatrical medium was harder than we could have imagined, but it was a mission that we’re glad we chose to accept.

Masi Asare and Brooke Pierce

Masi Asare is a composer/lyricist who lives and works in New York City. She wrote music and lyrics for the secret agent musical comedy Sympathy Jones, which premiered at the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and several projects for the experimental theatre collective Anonymous Ensemble, presented at venues across NYC and at the Brisbane Theatre Festival in Australia. She spent several years as a staff songwriter and music director for Kidstock Theatre in the Boston area, where she wrote some sixty songs for children’s musicals. She has worked as a producer developing new musicals in New York with Raw Impressions and 8Minute Musicals, and served as a music consultant for RIPFEST Collaborative Film Project’s Movie Musicals initiative. She is an alum of the ASCAP, New Dramatists/Nautilus, and BMI musical theatre workshops, was a 2010-11 Musical Theatre Fellow at the Dramatists Guild, and holds degrees from Harvard and NYU Tisch. She is currently working on two new shows — writing book, music, and lyrics for a musical about her west African grandmother, and collaborating with Brooke Pierce on a new musical for high school performers. Please visit her online at: www.masiasare.com.

Brooke Pierce graduated in 2002 from New York University, where she double majored in Dramatic Writing and Religious Studies and served as Theatre Editor of the NYU paper. She has written for TheaterMania.com, New England Entertainment Digest, Stage Directions Magazine, Show Business Weekly, and Go2 Mobile, and she was a contributing author to The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings and Arts America (as well as its companion website artsamerica.org). Staged readings of her plays and musical theatre projects have been held in Louisville, Orlando, Jersey City, and New York City. Her latest play, Beneath the Banyan Tree, had a successful reading at the Snapple Theater in NYC, produced by eyeBlink Entertainment. She is co-director of the London-based theater company This Stage Limited, and she is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild of America.

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