Produced by GOH Productions
Nominated for: Outstanding Original Music, James Brandon Lewis
About the Production
Dvorak In America depicts Antonin Dvorak's life during his tenure as the first Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in NYC, and his three-year stay in the US (1892-1895). This musical play uses objects and puppets to depict the characters as we follow Dvorak’s quest to discover the true American sound.
Composer James Brandon Lewis and Executive Director Bonnie Sue Stein talk about creating a biographical play with music based on an historical figure.
What attracted you to this subject?
James: What attracted me most about Dvorak in America is the courage Antonin Dvorak had in the Late 1800's to make the statement that the source material for American Symphony can be found in the folk melodies of African and Native Americans .
Bonnie: Vit Horejs, Artistic Director of Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre, has always been intrigued by the years that the renowned composer, Antonin Dvorak spent in the USA from 1893-1895, and the ideas that the composer had about the music of “Negroes” and “Indians”, being quintessentially American. Vit wanted to tell this little known story, of how Dvorak was brought to the USA to serve in the National Conservatory of American Music and was so impressed with spirituals and other types of music that already existed.
Growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, I was exposed to the immense Black-American culture that paved the way for so many new genres of music. I was attracted to this project as much as Vit, and I wanted to do it to learn more about the history and how we could tell this story with a contemporary twist.
What did you want the audience to come away with after watching Dvorak in America?
Bonnie: I want the audience to have questions – to want to know more about Dvorak and his influences and to understand that the train of musical history in the USA was based on many of his ideas in the 19th century. I want the audience to come away with the suspended belief that a violin case can be a character in a play, and to believe in the power of objects as puppets and characters.
I also want audience to question the issues of race and equality as it has developed and not developed through the history of the USA in terms of culture.
What was your favorite part of working on this production?
James: Favorite part of working on the is production was composing for it of course .I enjoyed the process of researching Antonin Dvorak music , and then assimilating my compositions as well as arrangements to the actual production of Dvorak in America . The parring my compositions with script was very insightful and cue based process of which i gained new insight into another world of compositional form .
Bonnie: I love this play and the way the objects and puppets are used to create ambiance and various scenes. The music is a particularly vital part of the show, since the play is based on a famous composer, and we wanted to show both his music and how his music influenced generations to follow. I am fond of the discreet use of the various blatantly racist stereotypes of the time to echo our own 21st Century world. The costumes, scenery, acting, music and the whole gestalt of the play are wonderful…I loved watching the set designer Tom Lee, develop his incredible backdrops with real Dvorak sheet music, and I am very fond of the use of the music instrument cases as part of the scenery.
What was the biggest challenge of working on this production?
James: The most challenging part of working on this production was just being new to working on a theater production , Lots to learn and it was a little overwhelming at first but then i settled in and got to work .
Bonnie: Challenging was the scale of the show. A large theater like the Ellen Stewart at La MaMa needs to be used in a smart way to encompass and transform the space. I have been working on various productions in this theater since the 1980s and am very happy how we were able to transform it for DVORAK IN AMERICA, thanks also to Tom Lee and his smart spatial design, and to the music and puppets.
It was also a challenge to know which part of the history to tell and what to leave out, to be able to really convey the story and the time period in a theatrical play with objects and puppets!
What was the strangest thing that happened during this production?
James: I ended up acting a small role, completely not what I thought I would be doing. Of course but very rewarding, and insightful .
What is it like working with GOH Productions?
James: It's truly a family. Very helpful and encouraging you to push yourself and ask of yourself the things that may expose what you may not feel confident doing at first but then you discover another layer and drive that helps shape new insight and gives you courage to push and touch the intimate place to then give all of who you are to the piece and to your fellow cast members. Truly a family.
What was it like working with James?
Bonnie: James Brandon Lewis is one of the most awesome composers and sax players that I have ever met in my life – and I have worked with countless famous and not so famous musicians. James is the real deal. He is dedicated, disciplined and destined for greatness. This was his first theatrical endeavor and I am certain he has the skill and insight to work on more plays and visual presentations, as well as music-only performances.
The ensemble of this show was stellar to work with, and I am thrilled that we were able to create such a gorgeous, meaningful show together. Vit Horejs is a visionary director, puppeteer, story-teller and playwright.