With all this new technology, can a long distance relationship work?
The Life Of Us questions just that, following protagonists Charlie and Ellie as they attempt to maintain their relationship through the use of modern-day technology. Dealing with real-world dilemmas, the show examines just how much human and emotional connections can be felt through a screen, and if relationships overall can suffer as a result.
Ashleigh Taylor is the co-writer of the show, and is playing the lead role of Ellie alongside her fellow co-writer and co-star Ben Bennett (as Charlie). Ashleigh’s past theatrical credits include Heather in American Idiot The Musical (Aus Tour), Sandy in Grease, the Arena Spectacular, Ellen in Miss Saigon (Packemin), Elphaba in Wicked (Packemin), and Pleasuredome The Musical.
Ashleigh and Ben were fortunate enough to be mentored by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin) when developing the show through the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles. The pair were the first ever Australians to be selected for the program, and have since developed the show to where it is today, making its official premiere as part of Hayes Theatre’s 2020 season.
With the show opening in just a few days, I had a quick chat with Ashleigh about her process of developing a new musical, and why this story is special to the current generation.
How did the writing process start?
It was kind of a few different things that came together. Back in 2013 I’d written down an idea for a show but didn’t know where to star on it. And that just sat in my journal, I didn’t do anything with it. And then when Ben and I started working on music together, there was a night where he suggested we write something more musical theatre based, rather than pop, and asked if I had a storyline we could work around so I told him [my idea] and he loved it! So that night we wrote the opening number to the show, and it’s still the opening we have today… and it kinda snowballed from there.
And how has drawing on modern-day issues, like technology, shaped the show?
I feel like it’s a love story in terms that it’s a relationship there, but in a medium that a lot of us deal with now. Having a relationship with someone via technology is really complicated, and it’s hard to maintain that feeling of connection when you’re only seeing someone through a screen every day or so. And it’s something Ben and I went through at the start of our relationship, when we were writing the show actually. We did it while we were in our own long distance relationship. So a lot of the things that come up in the show are things we went through in real life. Large chunks are fictional, definitely. But they’re based in our version of the truth. we want to make the story universal, so it’s not just a copy and paste of what’s happened in our lives. But it’s taken inspiration. So the relationship side of it is inspired by some of the complications that we went through, and the storyline of the leading female Ellie and her mother is based off my mother’s relationship with her father, who had Alzheimers.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge during this whole process?
Up until two weeks ago, I would have probably just said making sure that we have our personal time and professional time, making sure it’s not bleeding across and that we still are able to enjoy our relationship outside of work, because we work at home a lot of the time together. But now, being in rehearsals… it’s so hard to be acting in a show that you’ve written. I didn’t believe people when they said that would be a challenge, I thought “no, that’ll be fine!” But it actually has been really overwhelming and tiring, more than just your regular rehearsal period. Because we’re constantly having to make changes, we go home and work on the story more, rather than learning our lines, so it’s hard to balance.
Could you tell me a bit about the ASCAP Workshop and your time in Los Angeles?
It was really exciting. We were introduced through a friend to Michael Kerker, who’s the head of ASCAP over in Los Angeles and New York, and we sent him some of the music from the show and he called us. He was really impressed by what we’d sent across and recommended we submit for the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, which was directed by Stephen Schwartz, which we did. We waited a couple of months to hear if we were selected, which we were, and that whole process from there was just unbelievable and I just value that time so much. We were able to present part of our show to Stephen and Winnie Holzman, who wrote Wicked together, as well as Kevin Bannerman as part of Universal Theatrics. They really liked the show and were really impressed that this was our first time writing anything because they felt that it was super believable, the story was very well crafted. A lot of their advice was “more detail,” that we really needed to understand thought by thought as writers and get a little bit more specific in details and to make sure that the story kept moving forward, that we didn’t get stuck. Our show is very pop-based in the music, and we had to make sure that pop didn’t take over the musical theatre storytelling side. So we went and corrected all of those things, and definitely took on a lot of their advice , I mean if Stephen Schwartz is giving you advice on how to write a musical… you take it! [laughs].
So the show is more pop than it is ‘traditional’ music theatre in its style and music?
It’s a very contemporary sound, it’s very much inspired by Stephen Schwartz and Pasek and Paul, it has that Dear Evan Hansen or The Greatest Showman vibe to it, very much inspired by Wicked as well. That’s where Ben has gotten a lot of his influence growing up, so it definitely comes across in his style of writing. And we really wanted to make sure it felt like it was grounded in a lot of truth, and we didn’t just break out into song for no reason. I know I’m biased, but I think we’ve achieved that in the show. We’ve managed to do that well.
The Life Of Us opens at the Hayes Theatre on January 16th.
For tickets and more information, please visit the Hayes Theatre Co website.