When her kids got older, Lauren, a former lawyer, chose to pursue her longtime love for musicals. She wrote book and lyrics for two original productions in her hometown before moving to New York to pursue a Master’s degree in musical theatre writing at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in a suburban subdivision in a 1950s split-level house with a stay-at-home mom and a lawyer dad, a younger brother, and a younger sister. When I was young, I spent my free time playing with kids in the neighborhood, becoming an expert at jacks, hoola hooping, seeing how many times I could ride my bike around the block, reading, and fighting with my brother and sister.
Things went south when I hit puberty, and while I’m sure others don’t remember it this way, what I remember about high school is locking myself in my room to either listen to Carol King, John Prine, or Cat Stevens, or to read Martin Buber, Laurence Durrell, Nabakov, and anyone else that I thought might help me discover the meaning of life. I was not fun to be around.
I was a biology major at Princeton; my interest was biomedical ethics. My thesis was on the first “test tube baby” trial. I was completely engaged academically. I was still interested in discovering the meaning of life, and I also spent an inordinate amount of time examining and dissecting even the most mundane aspects of my life in a quest to specify exactly what I required to be happy. (What I required was for the perfect guy to fall in love with me.)
After graduation, I spent a year in DC, and then went to Harvard Law School, where I actually relaxed a little. After law school, I moved to New York, where I spent a little over a year in a big law firm. Then I got my dream job: Assistant General Counsel at Mt. Sinai Medical Center.
I met my future husband at Mt. Sinai, and within months got both married and pregnant, virtually simultaneously. Shortly after our daughter was born, my husband was recruited by The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and we moved. I had been offered the job of General Counsel of The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center but, because I was pregnant, I turned it down. I wound up practicing part time, but it was not professionally satisfying.
We lived in Pittsburgh for four years; both of our sons were born there. In 1992, we moved to Winnetka, Illinois, so that our kids could be near my family. I never practiced law after that.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Once my kids were a little older, I considered two “professional” pursuits. One was being a theatrical producer. I had always loved theatre—musicals, specifically—but it never crossed my mind that I could be involved artistically since I couldn’t sing, dance, or act. I had also loved my job at Mt. Sinai and one of the things I had loved most was the diversity of roles: doctors, nurses, lawyers, administrators, patients, Deans (medical school), fundraisers (the foundation). It seemed to me that working on a show would be similar to working at Mount Sinai; both involved complex structures and lots of people in many roles. I wanted to understand the relationships between the various parties involved in a theatrical production just as I had learned the roles of the people at a Medical Center, and because I was a lawyer, this included understanding the contractual relationships.
To understand the potential of this first option, I attended a number of conferences put on by a New York based organization called The Commercial Theatre Institute. Though for a variety of reasons I decided not to pursue it, I did start paying attention to what kind of shows broke even and concluded that what did the best financially was theatre for the non-theatre goer —shows like Million Dollar Quartet, Tony and Tina’s Wedding, Menopause the Musical—and determined that, were I ever to produce, I would produce this type of thing.
The other path I considered was going back to practicing law in some capacity but, after exploring the possibility, I decided that was not something that would work for me while I still had kids at home.
What is your next act?
I am attending the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at The Tisch School of the Arts at NYU to work on book and lyric writing. I am not a composer. I am a “words” person, which means that I will write “book” and lyrics. In a musical, the person who writes the book writes the dialogue and structures the story. Orientation was only a few days ago, on August 26th. I am still in my 50s as I begin, but not by much.
I love musicals. I was raised on the classics. I used to sing along to them when I did the family ironing and play them on the piano.
What I love about book and lyric writing is the challenge of it, and the satisfaction I get from writing something that delights and amuses me. There’s nothing better than sending a lyric to a talented composer and getting back a song. The reason I stay engaged, that I don’t lose interest, is because it is so incredibly hard to get it right and, while it may get easier with time—though I don’t know that from personal experience because it hasn’t gotten easier for me—it never gets easy.
Why did you choose to go back to school?
There was never a moment when I decided I wanted to be a musical theatre writer. It was a natural evolution that began when I started writing parody lyrics for my children’s middle school show. When my kids finished middle school, I joined The Woman’s Club of Evanston (WCE), a 125-year-old social service organization, and began to write for their annual benefit show. I had never considered my involvement in these shows anything other than something fun to do, which had the added benefit of leading to many of my closest friendships.
I came to write my first musical, Join The Club! this way…
In March of 2010, during the WCE show, I approached a woman named Leigh Anna Reichenbach, and asked her if she’d ever thought about trying to write something that was longer than three minutes (the average length of the parodies we wrote for the WCE show). I didn’t know her at all, but admired her from afar. She was a great performer and even better writer and it was a way to get to know her better.
She was up for considering it, so we started taking walks together. We wound up writing Join The Club!, a show inspired by our experiences as members of The Woman’s Club of Evanston, about the importance of female friendship and community.
We wrote it relatively quickly, using all musical parodies for the songs, and did a reading of it in my basement for a few of our best friends. Our friends loved the show, so naturally we rented a theatre, convinced a very talented, well-established, director to take it on, gave her permission to cast it with equity actors, and two months later we had a six-show sold out production. Our director, Stacey Flaster, has worked on many projects, and is also a sought after casting director and a co-founder of The Performers School in Highland Park. (Hear an interview with Leigh Anna and me on BlogTalkRadio.)
The show was enthusiastically received, but we realized that before we could think about future productions, we needed to find composers to reset our lyrics to original tunes. So we began the process of finding composers. In the meantime, I had begun to take some musical theatre writing classes through Chicago Dramatists and loved them, so I needed another project. I knew I wanted to write about that particular time in my life—the time when my friends and I were saying goodbye to our kids as they went off to college, renegotiating our relationships with our partners, and figuring out our next move.
I wound up working with an award-winning composer named Paul Libman on the show that became After They’ve Gone. The show had readings at Chicago Dramatists in 2013, and at Porchlight Music Theatre and Princeton University in May of 2014. There was also a concert reading of songs from the show as part of thet New York Theatre Barn’s New Works Series in March, 2014. Listen to the song “Second Coming of Age” from After They’ve Gone:
While I believe in Join The Club!, After They’ve Gone, comes from a deeper place and is closer to my heart. After the readings, I sent the show to various theatres and contests around the country and, although there was one small theatre company that said they wanted to develop and produce it, that fell through and no one else had any interest.
I was very frustrated. It’s not that I think I’m particularly talented, but I absolutely believe in my heart that After They’ve Gone deserves to be seen. It’s an original story on a subject—saying goodbye to our kids—which crosses all socio-economic boundaries; and it features a middle-aged female mom as the protagonist. And it just so happens that most theatre tickets are purchased by middle-aged females, many, if not most, of whom are mothers, and those women deserve to see their personal experiences reflected on stage.
Getting back off my soap-box for a moment…
Anyway, late one afternoon in July of 2014, I asked myself who was getting their work done and came to some conclusions—which I readily admit may be wrong. (I am not taking about writers and composers whose work gets done because they are universally acknowledged to be uniquely gifted. I’m talking about the rest of us.)
In Chicago, it seemed to me that the people who were getting their work developed and produced were composers and performers who were part of the artistic community. Since I’m not a performer or composer and never will be, that was not a viable path for me.
It seemed that the other people who got their work produced were people who developed relationships in graduate school. So I thought, “I should go to grad school.”
I picked up the phone and called Tisch. It was 5:02 on a Wednesday afternoon and I remember wondering if anyone would answer the phone. When someone did, I asked if it would be possible for me to start that September (assuming I was accepted) because I was old and I hated, at my stage in life, to put things off for a year. He said it might be possible. So I sent them After They’ve Gone and all the demos. Then they had me complete the application, which involved writing a few more scenes and songs, and telling them what I would bring to the table.
They accepted me in August to begin a month later, but I realized I couldn’t go yet. My youngest son had just graduated in May and needed to have either one or two surgeries on his knee. I couldn’t leave with peace of mind until he was through the surgery, had a job, and had moved out.
So I deferred school. My son had his surgery, got a job, and moved out. And now I’m going.
What was the question? The question was about “choosing” this path. First I described my path to musical theatre writing, which was more of one thing leading naturally to the next than any kind of choice. And the decision to go to Tisch was also not thought out; it never would have happened had I not decided to pick up the phone late one July afternoon on a whim.
Once I decided I wanted to continue to pursue musical theatre writing, there was no place else for me to go. To the best of my knowledge, Tisch has the only MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in musical theatre writing in the world, and New York is the center of the musical theatre world. It was Tisch or nowhere.
What other options did you consider?
If I had not wound up pursuing musical theatre writing, I believe I would be volunteering as an attorney with The Moran Center, an organization in Evanston, Illinois that provides legal and social services to juveniles that get in trouble with the law. I did consider practicing law from time to time over the years, but always concluded that I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices I would have had to make to get a job that would have interested me.
How have you prepared for Tisch?
As I said, what has turned into a pursuit of becoming a better musical theatre writer was a slow evolution that involved doing lots of different things, some of which weren’t particularly difficult and others of which were extremely uncomfortable. It involved not only writing for community theatre, which was fun, but also directing and performing, both of which were very stressful. (I do not like performing.) It has also involved taking responsibility for The Woman’s Club show a number of times: I was often head writer/creative director, which was fun, but extremely time consuming.
The other way I prepared for Tisch, though I didn’t know I was preparing for Tisch, was by putting myself out there and doing things that made me uncomfortable. I spent three years doing improv, purely for social reasons. At first, I was terrified. By the end, I wasn’t anymore. I did the Writing Program at Second City. That wasn’t scary, though I never got very good at it. But I also took a number of other classes at Second City, usually because a friend asked me to take it with them, including classes where I had to sing as I improvised. That was scary. When I stopped doing improv a couple years ago, I started taking voice lessons because, again, it’s very uncomfortable for me to bellow, even alone in a room with a voice teacher, and I’m convinced that it’s important for me to also have something in my life that makes me uncomfortable.
Writing classes at Chicago Dramatists also helped. While these classes involved having my work critiqued, like most writing classes, they were not especially difficult. The hard part is figuring out what feedback to use and which to ignore.
Producing Join the Club! was a difficult decision for a couple of reasons. First, it was a big financial risk. Second, my writing partner, Leigh Anna, and I were putting ourselves and our work out there in a much bigger way than we had in the past. In the end, after a lot of waffling, I decided to do it because I could and because I’ve come to believe people only regret the things they don’t do.
Another way I’ve prepared for the school part is by reading and writing, and by seeing hundreds of shows. But the most important part of the preparation was committing to going and letting everyone I care about know so that we could all get used to the idea. I suppose the best-case scenario is that I worried for nothing; that nobody’s going to care that I’m not here except me, and that the time will go quickly.
The decision to go to Tisch is an extremely difficult decision for me. I do not want to leave my husband, my mother, my sister, or my two adult children who live in Chicago. I love my friends and do not want to leave them. I like my house and where I exercise and my voice teacher. In general, I like the life I’ve created for myself.
I also wonder what it will be like to be part of a community of students who are almost without exception 30 years younger than I am. Will I be able to connect with them? With respect to school, will I be able to remember anything that I read? I’ve done much of the “summer” reading, but couldn’t tell you about most of it. Will I be able to stay up as late at night as I may need to? Will I be able to focus enough hours every day to be able to get my work done?
So, why am I going? I’m going because I love what I’ve been doing and there’s nothing left for me to do in Chicago that I haven’t already done. If I want new challenges and opportunities, I need to go to New York. The impulse is the same as it is for a mountain climber who wants to climb the higher mountain. And while failure, in my case, does not mean death, it is a relatively “public” failure. Unlike other types of graduate school, where I would be writing papers and taking tests, at Musical Theatre grad school, all work is collaborative and publicly presented. I will be writing book and lyrics and my work will be presented in front of faculty, peers, and visitors.
And I’m doing it because I see it as my last window of opportunity for a big adventure. As I said, I already feel badly about leaving my husband and my mother. If either of them were any older, I wouldn’t go.
How supportive have your friends and family been? How do you (and they) feel about being on your own in New York?
Friends have been extremely supportive. They are all planning to live vicariously through me. Family has also been supportive, particularly my husband, who will be the one that will bear a greater burden because of the decision. The program is two years. I don’t know how often we’ll be able to see each other as I’ve been told that the program is intense and that, even if my husband were in New York with me, I wouldn’t have any time for him.
If I’m going to do this, I want to throw myself into it. I have a streak of nerd in me, and although it hasn’t had much opportunity to surface since my school days, some of my best times were when I was engaged in some academic pursuit 24/7—where I lived, ate and drank a particular author or abstract question. My goal is to get as close to that as possible without being a horrible wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
I’ll be living on the Upper West Side and taking the train to school. I do have some friends in New York and am comfortable there since I lived there after law school and have visited frequently over the years. But while there is much I love about New York, I have no desire to stay there after the program ends. I like Chicago better.
What challenges have you encountered so far?
In musical theatre writing, as in most things, I suppose, there are the challenges of the craft itself and then the other challenges. The greatest challenge for me has been not being young, not being a composer or performer.
While people in the musical theatre community in Chicago have been kind and generous, I still feel like an outsider after six years. Perhaps it’s because six years isn’t long enough to earn a place among them. Perhaps it’s because I’m not particularly talented and everyone else can see that.
But even if both of those things are true, I believe it also has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not an actor/singer/composer. Another huge reason I’m going to Tisch is because I will be accepted as part of the musical theatre writing community by virtue of my being a student there.
Were there times you thought of giving up?
I haven’t yet thought of “giving up.” What’s kept me going is believing in my work, and believing that the 55-year-old women who constitute the majority of ticket buyers are entitled to have their stories told and see themselves portrayed sympathetically on stage. We should get to be the protagonist sometimes, if not often. I see myself as an audience member and a mother and I rarely see stories on stage that resonate with me.
What words of advice do I have for women seeking to reinvent themselves?
For anyone at any age who has something they’d like to pursue – this is what I have to say: No one knows how long they have. So if there’s something you want to do, and there’s nothing standing in your way, you need to do it today because tomorrow you may not be able to.
This is particularly true for women because we are connected to so many people. I like to write comedy, and I can only write comedy if I’m feeling light-hearted. So if my mother, or husband or children are struggling with something, or if I have a sick friend, I can’t write. If I’m worried about something, I can’t write. If someone I care about needs me, I can’t write. If I don’t feel well, I can’t write. I’m old and could wake up senile tomorrow, and I wouldn’t be able to write. So any day that I wake up and am able to work, I need to do it.
What are your favorite musicals and your favorite books on playwriting?
My favorite contemporary musicals are Fun Home, Hamilton, and Book of Mormon. Favorite classics are My Fair Lady and Little Night Music, to name only a few. A favorite little known musical is A Class Act.
My favorite books on playwriting are those by David Mamet, such as Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama and Writing in Restaurants. Another favorite is Joseph’s Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell).
Contact Lauren Taslitz at email@example.com