Filmed Live Musicals

Benita de Wit

March 11, 2021 Season 1 Episode 16
Filmed Live Musicals
Benita de Wit
Show Notes Transcript

Host Luisa Lyons chats with New York-based Australian director Benita de Wit.  

Topics include creating pertinent work with college students during a pandemic, the LIU Post Sondheim cabaret One More Thing Not to Think About, what makes a good theatre capture, what makes theatre “live” and human, why a student production of Kiss Me, Kate stuck in Benita’s memory, the upcoming stream Alter/Ego and how Bowie is relevant to Gen Z, and what it means to theatricalize pop music.

Benita de Wit is a New York-based Australian director of theatre and performance.  They are the Associate Director for the international tour of  “Bat Out of Helland have an MFA in Directing from Columbia University. Recent credits include “One More Thing Not To Think About” (Post Theatre Company), “The Laramie Project” (Pace University), “Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King (Belvoir, 25A), “The Silence” (MIT, Associate Director), "The Moors" (Off Broadway, Assistant Director), "The Rape of The Sabine Women by Grace B Matthias". Benita is an Adjunct Professor at Pace University and an Associate Member of SDC. Learn more at www.benitadewit.com.

One More Thing Not to Think About
https://vimeo.com/jstudiosny/review/486420579/14dffcb021
Password: N3wSw!*LIU2020

The Laramie Project
https://performingarts.pace.edu/current-season

Alter/Ego
https://www.facebook.com/liuposttheatrecompany/

Filmed Live Musicals is the most comprehensive online searchable database for musicals that have been filmed live on stage. Visit www.filmedlivemusicals.com to learn more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the site at Patreon. Patrons get early access to content, no matter how much you pledge. 

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Luisa Lyons: LL
Benita de Wit: BDW

LL: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. And now, on with the show!  

[00:00:25] Benita de Wit is an Australian director based in New York City. Their work has been seen on stages across the US and Australia, and they are the resident director for the new musical Bat Out of Hell, most recently staged at New York City Center. Through new works such as Razorhurst, Trash, and Undrown’d: Seeking Asylum, Benita’s work celebrates immigrants, the queer community, and marginalized voices. Throughout the theatre shutdown, Benita has shown that a pandemic need not get in the way of making powerful work. In 2020, Benita directed One More Thing Not To Think About, a musical documentary at LIU Post exploring life during Covid-19 through the lens of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Part tiktok, part concert, the project examined how we connect to Sondheim's work now and what it is like to come of age in a world that is falling apart. Welcome, Benita.

BDW: [00:01:15] Thanks, Luisa! Thanks for having me.

LL: [00:01:18] It’s my pleasure. It’s exciting and fun to have a very longtime friend who I’ve known for a very long time…

BDW: [00:01:26] Like, decades…

LL: [00:01:27] Here on the podcast. So very first question, what made you fall in love with musical theatre?

BDW: [00:01:34] I guess it was something that I started doing in school. I had a lot of extra energy as a kid, and I started doing drama classes. And I enjoyed that, but I think there was something about actually singing and that kind of heightened theatricality that I really enjoyed as a teenager, and I started performing in musicals in high school. I was in Calamity Jane and Bye Bye Birdie and Les Mis and did all that in high school, but I think part of my brain was always a little bit on the outside, always kind of being like, “Actually, I think it would be better if that actor entered from over there,” and then I eventually realized I was a director and not a performer.

LL: [00:02:14] And what brought you to New York?

BDW: [00:02:17] So I was looking to study directing. I had an undergrad degree in performance studies, but I hadn’t studied directing at any point. And I looked at programs in the US, and I fell in love with the Columbia University program. I applied and I got in, and they only accept six people every year, so I was like, “This is crazy, probably a good enough reason to kind of move over and see what happens.”

LL: [00:02:42] And what was life looking like for you pre-pandemic?

BDW: [00:02:47] This time last year, I was in London. I was rehearsing the international tour of Bat out of Hell, so we were in the rehearsal room. We were putting together the show, we were rehearsing with this incredible cast, and it was gonna tour to the US, then to Australia, then to the UK. And the news started coming out about the pandemic. I was the associate director on this show, so I was putting the show together with this amazing team, and we were seeing the news coming out, we were seeing things getting worse, we saw Broadway get shut down. And at that point, it was kind of a matter of when. But we were actually sixteen bars from the end of the show when we got the official word that we were shut down. We were a two-act musical, we were in the final song, sixteen bars from the end.

LL: [00:03:45] Did you finish it?

BDW: [00:03:47] We didn’t finish it. We didn’t. But what we ended up doing is doing a stagger-through of everything. We’d done a pass on the show, but we hadn’t run it all together. So we finished off the rehearsal process doing this absolutely wild stagger-through of a show that we’d never strung together with this cast, and got to those last sixteen bars, and it was a little bit of a free-for-all. But it was at least nice to be able to show what we’d been working on, even for ourselves, to celebrate what we’d spent weeks in rehearsal putting together.

LL: [00:04:23] That’s a new show in itself. Sixteen Bars to the End, or something.

BDW: [00:04:30] Yeah, totally.

LL: [00:04:31] The Pandemic Musical.

BDW: [00:04:33] Oh my goodness. It’s just crazy. It feels so long ago now. It’s so weird to think that a year ago, that’s where we were. And then I was in London and trying to get a flight back to New York, and they were cancelling flights. It was absolutely mad.

LL: [00:04:48] Have you tried to go back to Australia during this time?

BDW: [00:04:53] I haven’t. It’s so expensive right now, and it’s so difficult with hotel quarantine. There was definitely a time where I was thinking, early on in the pandemic, where I’d lost all of my work in New York, and as an immigrant I’m a lot more limited in my options here. And I was like, “I don’t know how long this is gonna last. Should I go to Australia?” It was a big question, cause once you fly over there, right now, with limited flights, you have to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel, it’s a very expensive trip. It’s hard to get over there. I had to think pretty seriously about what I was gonna do. But in the end, I live here. I’ve been here seven and a half years. I made the choice to stay.

LL: [00:05:33] It’s not an easy choice to make, and, selfishly, as I’m also here, I’m very glad that you have chosen to stay. Even though we can’t see each other right now, it’s very comforting to know that you’re just across the water.

BDW: [00:05:47] Just over in Brooklyn.

LL: [00:05:48] Just a little ways across the river.

[00:05:51] So the pandemic started, and then how did the Sondheim project come about?

BDW: [00:05:59] So I had been in contact with LIU previously about potentially directing a different show, but then they reached out to me, and they’re like, “Actually, we’d love you to do this Sondheim revue.” And firstly, the job was gonna be Sondheim on Sondheim, the musical revue, and then things changed with the pandemic. They’re like, “We’re not gonna be able to do it in person.” For licensing reasons, you usually can’t do shows streaming. It’s a whole separate license. And so they asked if I would be interested in doing a Sondheim cabaret, maybe on Zoom, something like that. And I was like, “Sure, I’m gonna figure something out.” 

[00:06:36] And I really feel for students right now, particularly performing arts students, who are just missing this big chunk of being in-person and creating theatre and doing the thing that they signed up to do. And I was like, “What can we make out of this situation that’s gonna be genuinely useful?” And I decided that it would be helpful to record things, and record remotely, since we had to rehearse through Zoom anyway. And I was like, “If these students come out of this with nothing else except knowing how to audio record and knowing how to film themselves, that will be worth it. If they can learn songs, learn how to record, learn how to self-tape, get those skills going, then that’ll be amazing.” 

[00:07:20] So I was like, “Okay. I’m gonna make something where I collaborate with these students and they record themselves. Great.” And then I just kept thinking that I love Sondheim’s music, but also I don’t think that right now is when we need to be hearing about Sondheim. I don’t think the story right now is this old white guy. This group of students I found really amazing. And the program at LIU Post is incredibly diverse. A lot of the students are queer or gender-nonconforming, and really just interesting, smart, engaged people. And so what I thought would be more interesting is if the project was about them, about what they are doing in their lives and how they are approaching this moment. And this was in fall last year, so this was September, October, November. And they were living through not only this pandemic and how to school and learn and act through that, but also the election, where a lot of them were voting for the first time, cause some of them are like eighteen years old, eighteen, nineteen. So that’s what the project ended up being about. Through Zoom, I conducted all these video interviews with them, and then we cut together this piece that followed their journey in the pandemic, and looking at these Sondheim songs for what they had to say about the world today.

LL: [00:08:43] Did they choose the repertoire, or did you assign songs?

BDW: [00:08:48] I assigned songs, but only after this series of conversations with them. So I met with each of them for half an hour to 45 minutes via Zoom, and I interviewed them, and I asked them about themselves, their lives, how they ended up in the program, what they thought about the election, the pandemic. We had these lengthy conversations that, honestly, I wish could’ve gone for longer. But then when I was editing, I was like, “Oh my goodness,” looking through ten hours of footage. But we had these conversations and then through that, I was like, “Oh, this person really has something to say about this. I would love to put them on this song.” So it was kind of put together like that.

LL: [00:09:26] And how many students were in the project total?

BDW: [00:09:30] There were eleven students in that one.

LL: [00:09:33] And they’re all first-years?

BDW: [00:09:35] No, they were a range of… I’m gonna try and use the American words, freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, I believe?

LL: [00:09:44] I’m impressed.

BDW: [00:09:47] I’m pretending to know what those mean. No, I think I know what they mean now. It took me a while, but I think I got it.

LL: [00:09:54] Senior is the last one. Freshman is the first one.

BDW: [00:09:57] Yeah. Sophomore is the second one.

LL: [00:09:59] S, second!

BDW: [00:10:00] Junior is the third one, which I will never understand, because that sounds like it should be the first one. I don’t know.

LL: [00:10:06] And how did you pick the songs that you chose?

BDW: [00:10:12] It depended. Some of them, it was thematic. Some of them, it was wanting to hear someone speak on a certain topic, or some of them… We took a song from Passion, for instance, “Happiness,” that is usually this heterosexual love story, and we queered that song and we made it really folky and a little guitar acoustic folksy sound, and we put two women in that piece and made it this queer story. So some of it was bringing who these students were to the piece. Some of it was just that we had truly incredible voices and there was certain material I wanted to hear them on. It was kind of a range. It was what their strengths were. And there was also, for the callback, we had a list of songs and they could choose what they wanted to prepare for the callback. So some of that informed it, too. There was material that they chose to sing, and that gave me a good sense, so some of those songs ended up in the show.

LL: [00:11:12] I’m curious what your process was in taking songs that were written for the stage and putting them in a more filmic context.

BDW: [00:11:24] Yeah, I think it really all stemmed from these interviews and sitting with the interviews. Luckily, timeline-wise, I was able to do this series of interviews with the cast, and then I had a month or so to put the show together, and kind of through those interviews, sort of a story was emerging. And then there were also sections of the show that were a huge question mark. Like, the election happened during our rehearsal process, and so that part of the show that sort of covered that moment in time, in my outline of the show, was a big “I don’t know, we need to see what happens. I need to see how it affects these students.” 

[00:12:03] I think it was just an evolving process. There were some things where I had a general idea of what I wanted the song to be, and there were some where I was like, “I want to work with this artist, this student, on this song, and we’ll figure out what it’s gonna be together.” There were definitely a few songs that I had no idea who was gonna sing them until several weeks into the process. Like, the final song, “Being Alive,” was performed by this incredible student, Kira Averett, and I saw the journey that they were going through in their life, and even through that rehearsal process I feel like they were opening up and going from strength to strength and through that process, I was like, “Oh my goodness, I have to see this student sing that song. It’s such a powerful song. It’s gonna be so amazing in their voice.” So some of the decisions were made like that. Quite a few of the songs we allocated as we went along. We also had this incredible resource in Debbie Tjong, who was our musical director, who is unbelievable, and her arrangements are just out of this world. So a lot of the time, I’d come to her with a very vague idea, and she’d bring back some incredible demo that she’d knock up overnight, and then we’d bounce off from there. So it was really very collaborative.

LL: [00:13:27] And how much of that rehearsal process was on Zoom or in person?

BDW: [00:13:34] 100% was on Zoom, except for two days where I came with a videographer to film some things on campus. So it was just those two days, very masked. Anything we filmed indoors, we couldn’t be in the same room as the student when they filmed it, cause they had to take their mask off to sing, so we’d set things up, we’d leave, they’d do a take, we’d come back in. Or there was a couple of songs which we filmed outside, where we could be masks off.

LL: [00:14:02] That is epic. The time, and you only had such a short amount of time in person. That must’ve been stressful. But the performances are so beautiful and so nuanced and… They’re fresh takes on what have become standards now, what is for the most part very well-known material. And it’s amazing that you’re able to achieve that with all your rehearsals being online.

BDW: [00:14:32] I think it’s the best thing about working remotely, is that you don’t have an option not to trust and rely on the people that you’re working with. They have to be active participants. And it was really great, giving them that responsibility. It’s like, “I’m not gonna be there when you film. I can’t be holding your hand on this. You have to take control of this song as an artist and perform it how you want to perform it.” And it was exciting to get to give these students that agency, because they’re all really wonderful artists in their own right, and I didn’t want to make it my version of what that song is. I came to them with ideas, but it was really their versions. And some of the students did some of the arrangements as well. It was genuinely really collaborative.

LL: [00:15:24] Oh, that gets me so excited. It’s not your usual musical theatre program, where it’s that stereotype cookie-cutter, you go in as the blonde ingenue and you come out as the dancing blonde ingenue or something. I don’t know. It felt so unique, and it wasn’t cookie-cutter, and the fact that these students now have agency to create work in that way is very empowering.

BDW: [00:15:54] Yeah, look, again, if they get nothing else out of it, that they now know how to record themselves, I will be happy.

LL: [00:16:03] That is a vital life skill now! If you’re gonna survive in the arts in post-2020, you have to know how to self-tape.

BDW: [00:16:10] Right? And the school was really great about supporting that and getting access to microphones and getting some ring lights, so they have that equipment and know how to use it, and can also teach their friends. Yeah, get all these talented students online.

LL: [00:16:29] Hell yes. Fresh faces, new voices.

[00:16:32] I know you’ve used media and film in your live theatre pieces pre-pandemic. Do you think going forward it will inform or be a part of your work going forward?

BDW: [00:16:47] Yeah, it’s definitely something I am really interested in, and certainly the work that I did on Bat Out of Hell, which used live video, and also on Slaughterhouse, which I did at Belvoir in Sydney, which also used multiple live video feeds, a lot of that equipped me to be able to make this show. I think just kind of understanding switching between two very different lenses, from theatre and film. I do think it’s definitely gonna continue to influence my work. I think there’s just opportunities in both. Both of them can be used in really different ways. I really like the combination of liveness and not-liveness. I’m never trying to make theatre like film though, because I think if you try to do that, you’re only gonna get bad film. So I’m interested in using things for what they can be used for. I mean, I’m doing a show on Zoom right now, and I’m not trying to do a Zoom version of a play. We’re trying to see how we can best use Zoom to tell this story.

LL: [00:17:54] Can you tell us more about that project?

BDW: [00:17:56] Yeah! So I’m directing The Laramie Project at Pace University, and we’re rehearsing completely on Zoom and performing on Zoom. I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Laramie Project, but it’s a verbatim theatre piece by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project about the brutal bashing of a young gay man in the late 90s. And so working out how to tell that story on a different platform is really interesting to me. And it’s been also a big question that I’ve had with this pandemic. Coming into these schools, virtually, and working with these students, and focusing how we frame things not as “What are we missing out on by having to work online,” but “What are the advantages?” And what are the advantages of being able to film and record something? What are the advantages of working on Zoom? How can we use that platform to do things we’d never be able to do in theatre? I mean, there are all these news reporters and news people characters in Laramie, and we can greenscreen and make them look like they’re in a real newsroom. We can do things like that that you can’t do onstage. Or at one point, one of the people speaking is anonymous. They didn’t want to give their name to the Laramie Project, and so we’re playing with effects to pixelate out that actor, so we can really use the digital platform to tell the story in ways you couldn’t if it were live.

LL: [00:19:28] It’s a perfect project in that way to do on Zoom, because it’s lots of individuals speaking, and then their stories coming together.

BDW: [00:19:36] Exactly.

LL: [00:19:37] It’s really interesting. When will that be out?

BDW: [00:19:41] Really soon. That streams… Checking my calendar to make sure I don’t say the wrong date… Yeah, so it’s on the second and third of April.

LL: [00:19:51] Okay, great. Definitely want to look out for that, cause it sounds really interesting.

BDW: [00:19:55] Yeah, I’ll send you the info!

LL: [00:19:57] Yes, please. I want to shift gears a little bit. Going back to live theatre and filming live theatre and releasing it later on, like Hamilton for example, that it was filmed live on stage and then released as a film on Disney+. What do you think will be the place post-pandemic of those kinds of things, of filming live theatre and releasing it as a product?

BDW: [00:20:24] I think it’s always going to be important, because the thing about theatre is that it is not as accessible as film, just from the nature of it being a live thing. It’s never gonna have the same access, partly for ticket price costs, partly just for geography, and so there’s just this sense of inaccessibility, which I think is why filming it is important, being able to have shows accessible online is important. You’re not having people miss out on that story because they either can’t afford it or because they live somewhere else. So I think it’s always gonna have a place. I’m curious to see what happens when theatres are open again. Will people be rushing to see shows and be in spaces with people, or will there be a sort of collective fear after a year of living in a space where being together is unsafe? What’s that transition going to be like? 

[00:21:26] I do think there’s something that you can’t… You can’t compare watching a show on film to watching it live. It’s a really different experience. There’s an energy from watching a show with an audience, with the cast, there’s a shared energy. Someone, I can’t remember who it was, once said this, and it’s something that I have held onto because I find it so delightful and helpful, but: “Rehearsing a show is always like rehearsing a show missing a cast member. You don’t get your final cast member until the first time you perform in front of an audience. And it always completely shifts what you think you made.” And so I think that’s what’s missing with anything filmed or anything on Zoom. You don’t get that sense of feedback from the audience that actually massively affects the show and tells you so much about the story that you’re telling.

LL: [00:22:25] Oh, absolutely. And it’s why I prefer shows to be filmed with an audience. Like, I’m excited about Diana and Come from Away being filmed on Broadway, but they’re not going to have the audience, and like you said, it is like missing a cast member. It’s not gonna have that live feedback that you get and the energy. I think that the camera can capture that energy exchange that happens between the audience and the performers onstage, and I think it’s a shame that those two shows will not have that, as wonderful as it is that they’re being filmed. We’ll be missing a part of the show.

BDW: [00:23:04] Absolutely.

LL: [00:23:06] The pandemic has made filming shows kind of more “acceptable,” in inverted commas. The licensing companies have made more shows available to stream. Schools, especially, are allowed to stream shows where they haven’t been before. Do you think that filming theatre, or the idea that it could be captured later on down the track, will change the way that you or others direct for the stage? 

BDW: [00:23:33] That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know if it would change the way I would direct for the stage, because I think if I’m directing for stage, I’m directing to make something that is live and that plays for a live audience. That is the thing that I’m creating, and I would want the filming of that to capture that essence rather than to make something for a film, cause I think if you try and make a film onstage, you make a bad film. You have to try and make a theatre show onstage.

LL: [00:24:09] What do you think makes a good capture of a theatre show?

BDW: [00:24:14] I think getting those really human moments. It’s the way... Every audience loves a show stop. Have you ever been in a show where something goes a little bit wrong, you have to stop, you have to go back, you have to redo it, and it’s just so human and it makes you remember those people are right there. This is a real point of connection, we’re going through something together. There’s an amazing blooper on the DVD or video or whatever of the Sondheim revue Putting It Together. Do you know this one? Opening of Act Two, Carol Burnett comes out and is doing the opening number, and her skirt slips down and she has to call a stop. And it’s hysterical, because it’s so human, and I think we see those moments in these shiny amazing famous people onstage, and it’s like, that happens to them, too, you know?

LL: [00:25:12] Yep. I’m thinking of the livestream of She Loves Me and vanilla ice cream, Laura Benanti is eating an actual ice cream cone, and the ice cream just falls off the cone into her lap, and she does this double-take.

BDW: [00:25:29] It’s beautiful. It’s what’s wonderful about theatre.

LL: [00:25:33] You’ve given me a great idea for a YouTube channel of bloopers from filmed live musicals.

BDW: [00:25:40] Amazing. But I feel like that has a life online. I feel like I’ve seen so many clips of bloopers from Wicked or things like that, because people love those moments.

LL: [00:25:51] I’m sure the actors don’t love them, probably, being captured for posterity.

BDW: [00:25:58] I mean, yes and no. There’s just something so alive about those moments. There was a moment in Bat Out of Hell, end of Act One, once, we’re so close to the end of Act One, and the whole song is on this motorbike. It’s like Strat and Raven escaping. One night in New York City Center, the motorbike just malfunctioned and would not come out of the tunnel, and we’re like, “We’re so close to the end of the act,” and I was watching it being like, “Oh my goodness. Are we gonna do a show stop? What’s gonna happen?” And watching the performers, watching Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington realize what was happening and be like, “Great! We’re gonna improvise our blocking for the whole remainder of this song!” And just seeing them transform into absolute rock gods and climbing the scenery and giving this performance that no other audience will get to see, and it was absolutely electric. I think those moments are brilliant. And I’m sure on stage they were like, “I hate this!” I’m sure they were freaking out…

LL: [00:27:10] Heart racing at a billion miles an hour, sweat.

BDW: [00:27:14] Yeah. But from the outside, it was unbelievable to watch. 

LL: [00:27:18] Your life flashes before your eyes.

BDW: [00:27:22] I mean, look, both of them, they’re such professionals, they’re so on top of their game. It’s probably a walk in the park for those two.

LL: [00:27:31] You’ve just reminded me of when I was working front of house in London at the Cambridge for Matilda, and there was a blackout across the whole of the West End, and we were six minutes from the end of the show. It was so close. And it was where all the tables are meant to go down in the finale. And they just got stuck, and they called a show stop, and they couldn’t finish the show because there was a blackout, and it was like, what do people do in that moment? They had to, for safety, there’s like fifteen children on the stage, so they had to stop the show completely. They couldn’t improvise. But just that moment of “What’s gonna happen next?”

BDW: [00:28:14] Yeah. I tend to think that people trying is the most wonderful thing. And I think it’s that thing of when... Someone doesn’t have to hit the craziest notes in the world, they just have to hit the notes at the top of their range, and it always sounds amazing. It’s just that potential for something to go wrong that makes things really engaging. But seeing someone overcome or triumph or do something… Back in Australia, at University of Sydney, I saw this production put on by the drama society of Kiss Me, Kate, and it was a perfectly competent undergrad drama society production, and there was the song “Tom, Dick, or Harry,” and they had these three guys… And look, often, finding good male performers for musicals, particularly at an amateur level, is always a challenge. There’s always, like, ten women for every man. And they had these three guys who were brilliant singers, really strong vocal performances, but you could just sort of tell that they were maybe not dancers, and that song, “Tom, Dick, or Harry” that they were performing, has this lengthy dance break. And I was watching it being like, “Okay, they’re great singers. They’re obviously gonna cut the dance break. It’ll be awesome.” 

[00:29:32] They got up to the dance break. It was not cut. They had learned a full routine. And the thing is that they obviously weren’t dancers, but they had clearly worked really hard and learned this routine and executed it to the best of their ability. There was a pirouette at one moment. You saw the person prep, turn, and it was like… The effort, the trying, was so apparent and it made it the most fascinating part of that show. And the applause they got at the end of it, because you saw three people pushing themselves, trying to do something, who had obviously worked really hard, and the outcome was wonderful. That was maybe ten years or more ago that I saw that, and I still remember that man prepping for a pirouette, you know?

LL: [00:30:25] Yes! That’s the essence of what live theatre is. It’s people, and especially in musical theatre, the joy of song and dance, and that you don’t have to be a shiny Broadway professional to entertain people. And I think there’s something to be said for filming shows too, that it doesn’t just have to be the highest-level Hamiltons that are screened and that the world can see. That’s what I’ve loved about the pandemic, is that I’ve been able to see shows by all levels of companies and of people from all around the world that I wouldn’t have been able to see in normal times.

BDW: [00:31:14] Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing.

LL: [00:31:17] Like, I wouldn’t have been able to see Long Island University students perform their Sondheim cabaret, probably.

BDW: [00:31:24] Or their upcoming Bowie cabaret!

LL: [00:31:26] Yes! And I wanted to ask about that. Next up on the list is Alter/Ego. Can you tell us more about that?

BDW: [00:31:34] Absolutely. So back at Long Island, back with my amazing musical director Debbie again, and it actually streams on Friday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So this time the department said, “We’d love you to do another cabaret. What are you interested in doing?” And I pitched to them a Bowie cabaret, cause I love Bowie. Come on, some of the best music ever written. And what an interesting person and performer. And particularly because this student body is very queer and very gender diverse, I thought it would be a really interesting cabaret to do. So I picked Bowie. These students, of course, they’re like eighteen years old, they barely knew who Bowie was. I thought they’d be huge Bowie fans. They’re like, “Yeah, that’s like my dad’s music.” I was like, “Got it.” 

[00:32:23] This project’s more about researching Bowie and learning about him and his music and his shifting relationship with his own sexuality and gender and presentation and mental health, and all these different personas that he played, and looking at the ways we sort of put on these different personas and how we navigate life. And so all of these students, I just wanted to turn them into rock gods. Because I think that they are. I think they’re badass. I think they don’t know, actually, how cool they are. Cause they’re just finding themselves. But there’s something about Gen Z that is just so much cooler than we ever were at their age. Like, you look at the stuff that we were when we were eighteen, nineteen, it’s really embarrassing. We weren’t that self-actualized. We were just doing our best.

LL: [00:33:20] I am so grateful that Facebook did not exist when I was eighteen, because no.

BDW: [00:33:25] It was rough. We didn’t have Instagram! We couldn’t look up some good looks. We were just on our own, just blindfolded…

LL: [00:33:33] In the wilderness.

BDW: [00:33:35] Our teenage years.

LL: [00:33:37] We had Dolly magazine.

BDW: [00:33:39] Oh my goodness, yeah. We had a little pink Lip Smacker with sparkles in it, and that was our top look.

LL: [00:33:46] With butterfly clips. 

BDW: [00:33:48] Oh, yeah. These kids do all this fancy eyeliner, and they’re like so fashionable. I was still probably wearing hand-me-downs in my teenage years, and these kids look amazing.

LL: [00:34:00] I’m curious if your show is influenced at all, or if you reference the filmed live musical Lazarus, that is the Bowie musical that was filmed with Michael C. Hall.

BDW: [00:34:16] Yeah, so we don’t reference it. We talk more about the albums. But we do have the song “Lazarus” from the Blackstar album, and a few of the other songs that are in the Lazarus musical. We do have a few of those in the show. Yeah, I watched Lazarus during the pandemic, because it is filmed and streamed. I’d missed it at New York Theatre Workshop, so yeah, because it was online, I got to see it.

LL: [00:34:45] What did you think of the stream?

BDW: [00:34:46] I think the show had some really interesting moments in terms of how video and stage related. I think it’s really difficult to capture the essence of Bowie. To be anyone else and capture the essence of Bowie is really hard, and it’s something we’ve been sort of having a conversation about and figuring out how to chase that in this project, because there’s something really, really different about hearing David Bowie sing his material and perform his material, or seeing a cis straight white man like Michael C. Hall do it. I don’t think those are the same things. And Michael C. Hall playing the character that Bowie played in The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a really different thing. I know it’s sort of a continuation of that story, but a real shift. 

[00:35:45] I think also whenever you are theatricalizing pop music, it really changes it, and this is something that I’ve been doing a lot, having worked on Bat Out of Hell, which is the Meat Loaf musical, and doing this Bowie project. Putting those songs into theatre voices is a really different experience. And then if you’re very familiar with the material, there’s this part of you that’s going, “No, that’s not how this song sounds. I’ve listened to this song over and over. It doesn’t sound like that.” So I think that there’s stuff that you’re naturally fighting in order to make it work, and there’s something really weird about hearing, amazing as she is, Sophia Caruso sing “Life on Mars,” brilliantly belted and perfectly supported, with vibrato, feels deeply strange to me. So I think that there’s a challenge there. It was an odd piece. It was very different on stage. I think there were interesting moments. But it also was very stagnant, and I think that’s hard to do in a musical. It’s hard to move things forward and feel story. 

[00:37:00] And I think also one of the things that, to me, is really important about Bowie, is the way he dressed, the way he presented himself. And so having a Bowie surrogate in, like, a beige pretty plain outfit was a really different take on that story. Cause I feel like part of what’s delightful about him in the film is in every scene, he’s in a different phenomenal outfit. He always looks amazing. And I think that part of his legacy is appearance, is costume, is makeup.

LL: [00:37:31] His aesthetic was a whole thing, yeah. Oh, I cannot wait to see Alter/Ego.

BDW: [00:37:37] Yeah! I guess my question with the musical Lazarus is who is it for? I’m not sure I got a sense of who it was for, because there’s Bowie fans like me who feel a bit strange about it departing so much from the movie and from the music, but then I think there’s also something that you gain from it by knowing a lot of the songs and knowing the backstory. So I’m not really sure in the end who it was meant for.

LL: [00:38:08] Who is Alter/Ego for?

BDW: [00:38:10] Ooh, that’s a mean question, cause now if I don’t have a good answer, I’m gonna look like an idiot! Honestly, with these projects that I’m working on with these students… So I think always, it should be for an audience, obviously, but I think there’s also a huge component where it is the journey of these students. It is for the students, for their discovery, for their development. But I also think that anyone feeling lonely, sitting in isolation, feeling unseen, feeling unfabulous, it’s for them. It’s for… A lot of it is about isolation and connection and being visible in the world and allowing yourself to be visible. So I think in that way, it’s for them, it’s for their peers, it’s for anyone else feeling a little trapped and a little isolated.

LL: [00:39:12] Oh, knowing what you did with the Sondheim, I cannot wait to watch what you’ve done with the Bowie. So there will be links to that in the show notes. I know you have to go soon, although I could talk to you all day long.

BDW: [00:39:24] Oh wow, look at the time!

LL: [00:39:25] I know, it was just whoosh! So I have a few quick questions to wrap up. What is your favorite musical?

BDW: [00:39:34] Oh, that’s hard, Luisa! You can’t ask me that! I’ve always been a huge Sondheim fan. I love Sondheim. I love Passion, I love Sunday in the Park with George, I’d really like to direct A Little Night Music. And also Passion, actually. I’d like to direct both of those. I don’t know if I’ve got a favorite. There’s ones that are total bops. I love Wedding Singer, the musical. Wedding Singer and Legally Blonde have no right to be as good as they are as stage shows. If you just want a good time, either of those shows, amazing.

LL: [00:40:10] Yes. And Legally Blonde was filmed, so yay for that one, on MTV. Do you have a favorite filmed live musical?

BDW: [00:40:22] I don’t think I do, but I will say that watching Avenue Q and Wicked bootlegs as a 16-year-old teenager in Australia dreaming of theatre and dreaming of New York, those were lifelines, you know? Feeling connected to this place that felt like it made more sense for me, when I was all the way over in Australia, I think that was really, really important. So maybe one of those, just because of history, just because of accessibility. Just because things like that make it possible for little kids like me in Australia to be like, “Maybe I could work in New York one day.”

LL: [00:41:10] I feel that very deeply. And that is a perfect lead-in to the next question, where do you stand on bootlegs?

BDW: [00:41:19] Oh, officially, they’re terrible. Don’t bootleg a show. But I see them more as a symptom of a problem, which is that theatre is still pretty inaccessible. It’s still usually kind of pricing people out of it, and also just location-wise, it can be pretty inaccessible. And people want to engage with the material the way they engage with their favorite films. If you love a film, you can watch it over and over again, and that’s not possible with theatre, because also, by its nature, it appears and it disappears. So I think bootlegs pop up in response to inaccessibility, and also in response to communities that love the work. I think they come from a place… No one’s making money out of dodgy theatre bootlegs. I think it comes out of people who love these performances and who really connect to them and who really feel at home and accepted in the theatre in a way that they don’t necessarily in other places. So even though, obviously, it’s not a great thing to bootleg theatre, and I believe that everyone should be paid for their work, I think it’s a symptom of a bigger problem of accessibility.

LL: [00:42:42] I really like that answer. A filmed live musical, it’s not exactly theatre, and it’s not exactly film. So what should we call it?

BDW: [00:42:51] What’s wrong with filmed live musicals? That’s a great title.

LL: [00:42:55] People are like, “What is that?” But thank you, I appreciate that. What do you wish had been filmed?

BDW: [00:43:01] Ooh. I don’t know, I’m sure there’s been amazing shows that I’ve missed that I wish were filmed. I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t think of one right now. I also think that there’s… I love the cult of energy around a show when it’s limited run, and you miss out, and you’re like, “Oh, I wish I’d seen that show!” And I think all of that builds into the joy and the excitement of it. There are shows that I loved that I would watch again in a heartbeat, but I’m also kind of glad that they just live on in my memory.

LL: [00:43:41] That’s very poetic. What would you like to see filmed in the future?

BDW: [00:43:47] Just as much as possible! I would just like everything to be way, way more accessible.

LL: [00:43:55] Yes, please. And where can we find you online?

BDW: [00:44:01] I have a website. You can find me at benitadewit.com.

LL: [00:44:05] We will have in the show notes links to definitely Alter/Ego, and if we can, One More Thing Not To Think About. Benita, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been wonderful to chat.

BDW: [00:44:18] Thank you so much, Luisa. I’ll see you soon!

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