Monday, January 25, 2016

Spotlight On...Danny Ashkenasi

Name: Danny Ashkenasi

Hometown: Living in Brooklyn, NY; born and raised in Berlin, Germany

Education: BFA in Drama from NYU (Acting and Directing track at Playwrights Horizons Theater School)

Favorite Credits: Composer: beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN: a Mark Twain musical; The Song of Job 9:11; The Tell-Tale Heart: a musicabre; Witches: a two women musical; Actor: "Rote Erde" – TV miniseries; Richard II (title role); The Tell-Tale Heart: a musicabre (Protagonist)

Why theater?: I’ve loved performing and music since before I can remember.  It’s always been who I am.  I can’t remember what initially spurred the enthusiasm (although my mother being an opera singer may have had something to do with it; her mother was a performer too, so it could have been nature, it could have been nurture, it could have been both).  I was acting and singing as a child and composing musicals became a natural outgrowth of my love for theater.   Always expected to become an actor.  That I was a composer too took me by surprise when the ideas for my first full length musical (called Once Upon a Frog) happened upon me at the age of 14.

Tell us about Speakeasy: Speakeasy transports the stories and weird dream logic of "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass into the Roaring Twenties".  Two Alices, newlyweds John and Jane Allison, get mixed up with the Queer subculture that flourished in Prohibition era New York, encountering characters based in part on Lewis Carroll as well as real life eccentrics of that era’s Gay and Lesbian demimonde.  A lesbian kiss and homoerotic public restroom encounter are catalysts for the young couple’s fantastical adventures.  In one magical dream night John and Jane discover the Wonderland nightclub, experience bathtub gin, buffet flats, drag balls, and engage in whirlwind same sex affairs before witnessing the dissolution of 1920’s Queer culture during a bizarre “trial of the tarts”.  Finally John and Jane separately wake up from all this “stuff and nonsense”.   But was it all “just a dream”?  And will John and Jane reveal their newly discovered truths about themselves to each other?

What inspired you to write Speakeasy?: I’ve always wanted to set a musical where a 1920’s/1930’s nightclub defines and envelops the whole world of the play.  I also wished to compose a musical illuminating Gay American history.  Gay culture of the 1920’s/1930’s seemed so long ago and so “before recorded modern Gay History” to be almost fantastical.  So I thought exploring that time through a magical realist lense would be appropriate.  When I hit upon using both Alice books as templates for a married couple going “down the rabbit hole” and “through the looking glass”, I knew I had found my story.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: All genres and styles speak to me, if done well, with artistry, passion and intelligence.  But I have a lot of experience with and am particularly drawn to ensemble theater that relies on minimal sets and technical requirements and creates the whole world of the play through creative, evocative use of the actors. Where to begin, and how to end?  In music theater the greats like Sondheim, Porter, Weill, Robbins, Prince quickly come to mind; add composers like Beethoven, Bartok, Gershwin, Bush and Joel to another long list; cinematic geniuses like Astaire, Kelly, Fosse, Berkley… you really shouldn’t get me started…

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: Nope, not saying it out loud, for then the wish won’t come true…

What show have you recommended to your friends?: Recently, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, Fun Home, A Curious Incident…, Kinky Boots, and of course, Hamilton!

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: Darren Chris (younger version)?  Steve Carrell (older version)? "Once Upon a Tune"?

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: Shakespeare’s plays as originally performed, including at the original Globe Theater.  The original production of Kurt Weill’s and Max Reinhardt’s The Eternal Road.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: "Dancing with the Stars".  But I don’t feel guilty about it, although I imagine those, who haven’t discovered it to be the wonderful feel-good bowl of TV jello it is, would think I should feel guilty about how much I love that show.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: Professor of Semantics in some small rural liberal arts college.

What’s up next?: The showcase run of Speakeasy is Feb 18 – Mar 13 at the Theater for the New City.  After that, … actually, I can barely think beyond that at this point, Speakeasy has so completely consumed me.  But I do have another musical, feedstore Quarte, written in collaboration with Jack Hilton Cunningham as well as the concept album “American Anthem” with the Jazz singer Jacqui Sutton in the pipeline.  And continuing my blog Notes from a Composer” –, which includes many fascinating tidbits and behind the scenes looks at Speakeasy among other cultural topics.