Baryshnikov Arts Center

Baryshnikov Arts Center

BAC Stories

BAC Story by Lizzie Simon
Qui Nguyen, Liesl Tommy, + Shane Rettig

Qui Nguyen, Liesl Tommy, + Shane Rettig

Mar 28, 2014

By the end of their residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the musical comedy team Qui Nguyen and Shane Rettig had written more songs in a week than they had for six months. “It’s really hard to get together and make it happen,” said Mr. Rettig. “Here you write something. You hear something. You learn.”

He was speaking from the BAC’s 6th floor studio where, in partnership with the Sundance Theatre Institute, he and Mr. Nguyen had been plugging away on their musical-in-progress, “War is F**king Awesome,” with director Liesl Tommy and a stellar group of performers including Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sharone Sayegh and William Jackson Harper.

Studio 6A has a kind of understated urban elegance: concrete walls with large windows that look out onto city views. Inside, music stands, chairs and fold up tables, a piano, scripts, pencils, water bottles, coffee and snacks from the building’s first floor café. It was their last day of rehearsal, and in a few hours, they’d be presenting a semi-staged reading for an invited audience of fifty friends and colleagues.

“War” is a musical satire about a young woman killed in the American Revolution who is offered immunity if she’ll agree to fight in every American conflict in perpetuity. The humor is political, sometimes irreverent, sometimes piercing, sometimes raunchy---it’s a bombastic comedy, with a comic book feel. But at the core, said Mr. Nguyen, the musical is about his relationship to the war narratives he heard as an adolescent in the States. “In school the Vietnam War was always referred to as a mistake, but in my household Vietnam was necessary. I heard a different response inside and outside.”

The residency at BAC came at a critical time in the show’s development. Given simple, but essential, resources, the creative team was able to move the work-in-progress dramatically in the direction of completion.  He and Mr. Rettig’s first residency for the show was last summer at the Sundance Institute in Utah. There Mrrs. Nguyen and Rettig were first paired with director Liesl Tommy, who had selected the script with an esteemed panel headed by Sundance Institute artistic director Philip Himberg. “We selected it because it seemed very fresh and to be pushing form,” said Ms. Tommy. “Also because of what Qui outlined on his to do list - what was not yet written. It seemed like Sundance could really give Qui and Shane time and space to further develop something wonderful.”

Her first impression of Qui's script? “I found it hilarious, politically subversive, and hyper theatrical. And I'd never encountered a musical where the choreography during music was meant to be fights.” Mr. Rettig’s music combined pop, hip hop and R&B, “and not cheesy musical theatre versions of those things.”

Moreover she wanted to be part of Mr. Nguyen’s satire of war ideology. Ms. Tommy is herself an immigrant from South Africa. “I really related to Qui's passion for telling this story,” she said, “Qui talked about being from a family of Vietnamese immigrants coming to the USA in the 70's and his perspective on war, fleeing war, reasons for war. I knew he had a fascinating POV.”

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Lizzie Simon writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal.

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