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An Acclaimed Musical Miniaturist Shifts Her Time-Traveling Talents To A Larger Canvas

By Shazia Ahmad

As long ago as she can remember, Polly Pen was singing parlor songs. Along with her mother, her grandmother and her aunt at the piano, the five-year-old composer-to-be would belt out harmonies from a frayed Victorian songbook called HeartSongs. Although she didn't know it then, young Polly was absorbing a musical education that would later serve her well. "It didn't seem odd to me then," says Pen, recalling her somewhat antiquated upbringing. "I thought that's what people did." It was only when she left home for college that she discovered popular music: "I'd listen to Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and rock, but I always thought it was too loud."

Years later, the award-winning composer still remains comfortably removed from the modern age. While critics wax lyrical about musical theatre's new order--exemplified by the genre-bending work of Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChuisa and company--Pen roams her own theatrical orbit, a realm teeming with oddball characters and complex rhythms. Audiences and critics alike struggle to categorize Pen's take on musical theatre, describing her works as "vest-pocket musicals" or "chamber operas," on account of their miniature scale.

In keeping with the quirky tenor of her musical beginnings, Pen's source materials are often obscure literary texts--a sexually charged 1862 Christina Rosetti poem inspired Goblin Market, her acclaimed debut work; a 1920s silent Russian film about a ménage à trois was the nucleus of Bed and Sofa (a 1996 Obie-winner for Pen's score); a minor work by H.G. Wells provided the plotline for the whimsical, proto-feminist Christina Alberta's Father. And now, with her latest work, The Night Governess, based on a long-lost Louisa May Alcott novella called Behind a Mask, Pen continues to craft musical portraits from a bygone age. The Night Governess received its premiere in May at Princeton, N.J.'s McCarter Theatre.

"In some respects," the 47-year-old Pen confesses during a series of interviews between rehearsals on the Princeton University campus, "I function like I am in the Victorian age." Her trim silvery bob and Philip Johnson-style spectacles add a touch of the eccentric to her personality, but she dismisses this idea with a smile. "Sometimes I'm...," she pauses, then adds demurely, "I'm, shall we say, slightly absent-minded." At one point the absent-minded artist strolls casually out of a Princeton convenience store, forgetting to pay for her coffee. When reminded, Pen hunches her shoulders like a scolded child and scurries back to apologize to the young cashier. "That's so typical of me," she remarks afterwards, lighting up a Winston. (She's started smoking again since Night Governess rehearsals began.) But beneath the quirky persona, Pen has a highly refined aesthetic that seems at odds with the cultural fast lane of the new millennium. Her favorite writers are Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. She enjoys painting miniatures--"My father was a painter, so it's in the blood"--and confesses to hardly ever watching TV--"I only watch it when my actor friends are on." Add to this her taste in theatre--"I love Richard Foreman's work, but I also adored the revival of Kiss Me, Kate"--and her own work's eccentricities begin to come into focus.

Pen began work on The Night Governess three years ago during her residency at the McCarter (under the auspices of the Pew Charitable Trusts/Theatre Communications Group National Theatre Artist Residency program). Happily ensconced at the theatre as composer-in-residence, Pen was on the lookout for potential projects that would fit the flagship company's fledgling efforts at new-musical development.

"I'd actually heard about the discovery of Alcott's thrillers in the newspaper," says Pen, who had already suggested several other project ideas to her McCarter colleagues. "I myself was interested in exploring an idea about Byzantine iconoclasts," she adds dryly, "but I think that may have worried them a bit." In fact, it was the McCarter's literary manager, Janice Paran, who convinced the composer to give Alcott's lesser known work another look. "Polly's sensibility seemed so natural for the piece," says Paran, who was taken with Alcott's potboiler after discovering it while on vacation in Vermont.

Best known for her sprightly, often-dramatized family saga Little Women, Alcott also composed more lurid and sensational stories under the pseudonym A.M. Bernhard. These "other stories" helped Alcott earn a living--not unlike the enterprising Jo March of Little Women. "They are easy to 'compoze' and are better paid than moral and elaborate work," wrote Alcott in 1862. The stories also served as an outlet for the author's more radical ideas on women's place in society.

Behind a Mask: A Woman's Power tells the tale of Jean Muir (played in the McCarter production by Judith Blazer), a mysterious governess with a secret past who enters a rich family's home and manipulates her patrons for her own ends. Muir's ultimate goal, in keeping with the melodramatic conventions of the time, is economic survival--to marry a rich man. When Pen read Behind a Mask, she immediately realized the theatrical potential buried in the piece. "The story actually had a heroine who didn't lose," says the composer, describing her initial response to the tale. "That was very unusual in Victorian literature at the time."

As she set about shaping the show, Pen was drawn irresistibly to the character of Jean Muir. "There was something intriguing to me about the Victorian spinster--the embarrassment and, at the same time, her independence. I was curious how people perceive spinsterhood as both peculiar and odd."

One of the most memorable songs in Governess is called "Odd Women." The lyrics display Pen's ability to riff on a resonant theme:

We both are odd women
Lopsided tag alongs
Not balanced by the other ones
The stronger ones
The ones who hold the carrots and the string.

  We are odd women
Living unevenly
Lives that are extra
Lives that are free.


The song is partly an old-fashioned 'two-hander'; and partly talks about the difficulty of aging--all the details are close to my heart," says Pen. Unlike the sentimentalized figures in Alcott's Little Women--"I was not a fan of that book," says the composer sternly--the governess in Behind a Mask appealed to Pen because of the subversive elements in her character. "She had a clarity of motive that I found intriguing to play with," adds Pen, who began the composition process by picking away at the text. "My task in adapting the piece was to look for holes that I could leap into and explore. When I read the original novella, I could see the musical moments and wrote them right away. I also worked on the script and lyrics at the same time. When I got stuck with a musical problem, I'd go to the script."

One of the main themes in Governess is the vitality of knowledge. Muir, Pen's "knowledge vampire," not only educates her patrons, the well-to-do Coventry family, quite literally in their sleep, but also submits to her own insatiable hunger for knowledge. In one scene Muir declares: "Knowledge! Yes! Attack now. In the dark. I can't sleep, why should they?" The governess proceeds to tutor the three Coventry siblings on a feast of topics: botany and anatomy, history, power and deception. Indeed, Pen's own appetite for learning is ravenous. "I can't stop reading and teaching myself," confesses Pen. In tandem with crafting Governess, she continued teaching as an adjunct at New York University's graduate music- theatre writing program. "It's funny how teaching and learning does become all-consuming."

For McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, herself a playwright, Pen's stint at the theatre has been a rousing success. "I don't know anyone whose imagination excites me more than Polly's," Mann says. "She's one of the most original voices in musical theatre." The collaboration between Alcott and Pen seemed natural, she suggests, as "they are two simpatico female artists brought together across time." The McCarter had previously premiered only two new musicals, Betsey Brown (by Mann, Ntozake Shange and Baikida Carroll) and the musical revue C'mon & Hear: Irving Berlin's America, and the company was eager to include an original musical in its 2000-01 line-up. "Polly's helped us become much more aware of musical theatre," says Paran, a close collaborator on Governess. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be thinking about musicals in planning our seasons."

For Pen, the residency has offered her the chance to think big. "My previous work had been miniature theatre performed in intimate spaces," she notes, commenting on her work at New York's Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre. "I wrote Goblin Market, for instance, with the Vineyard stage in mind. Here I'm working with a much bigger canvas."

Two weeks into rehearsals, it's obvious just how vast Pen's canvas actually is. It includes not only the giant McCarter stage--a 40-foot proscenium cavern that has posed similar challenges for such intimate dramas as Athol Fugard's The Captain's Tiger and Mann's own two-hander Having Our Say--but a myriad of collaborators vying for Pen's time. "I'm working with a bigger orchestra, more actors than ever before," she says. "My balloon has just blown up."

Among the talent sharing the balloon are four actors who are veterans of the Broadway musical Titanic, a nine-member pit orchestra, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez (who evokes the Coventry estate with shifting scrims, backdrops and minimal furniture that slides, rides or drops into view) and director Lisa Peterson. Choosing a director outside the musical-theatre pack was a wise move, according to Pen. "I went to see her musical adaptation of Virginia Woolf's The Waves and was amazed," she says. "I didn't think that that book could work as a musical. All the same, Lisa hadn't done tons of musicals. I was looking for someone who understood the drama of the play."

(If the critics are to be believed, Peterson understood that, and more. The director's deft approach "matches Pen's for lightning-fast swerves and switches," a Times of Trenton reviewer wrote after the May 8 opening. "As subversive as it is delightful," another critic wrote of the musical in the weekly U.S. 1, adding that "we have learned--from Alcott through the talent of Pen--what it meant for a working woman of the 1850s to survive by means of intelligence alone.")

Now, as she rushes between rehearsals and her makeshift McCarter office, Pen projects both the intelligence that she prizes in her complex heroine and that ethereal quality of "artist at work." In the well-lit rehearsal room, she tinkers on the piano, humming in shorthand to Alan Johnson, the show's musical director. She confesses later, "I'm sure I frustrate him. My scores are filled with rubato [fluctuations of tempo] that are impossible to conduct." Pen is obviously something of a perfectionist. "My worst habit is maniacally focusing on tiny details. It's the curse of the miniaturist." She dashes back to her office. "I think I'm just slightly scattered at present. The energy has accelerated with just a few weeks left."

For Pen, a dearth of energy has never been a problem. Growing up in downtown Chicago, she developed an early enthusiasm for performing. By her late teens, she'd acted in regional productions of Oliver!, Oklahoma! and the original production of Grease; she even made an appearance at Chicago's Lyric Opera. In fact, Pen's talent for performance carried on a long family tradition. "My grandmother was an actress on the theatrical circuit in the '20s," she says. "My mother was a variety entertainer with the USO and was very interested in ballet, so I began performing at a very young age."

After majoring in English at Ithaca College, Pen moved to New York City where, as a performer, her first break was short-lived. "My first Broadway show was called The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall--it opened and closed opening night." For several years, Pen toured regionally as an actor (including, perhaps prophetically, a long run of A Christmas Carol at the McCarter). Alongside the acting career came the usual moonlighting gigs. "I did everything except waiting tables," she avows, confessing, "I was awful at that."

Pen's switch from actor to composer happened by chance. Though she was regularly composing scores in her spare time, she hesitated to release her music, a deeply personal undertaking, to outside ears. Looking back, she credits Douglas Aibel, the artistic director of the Vineyard, with prying open her talents as a composer. Aibel recounts the tale: "One day Polly sheepishly mentioned that she had been composing a show. I remember having to persuade her to play it for me. When she finally agreed, she made me turn my back so she could play the music without me looking." To Pen's surprise, Aibel commissioned Goblin Market on the spot. The musical, co-authored by Peggy Harmon, was a critical success; the New York Times described it as an "entrancing expedition." The project was the first in a fertile collaboration between Pen and the Vineyard. "If Doug hadn't persuaded me so persistently, I don't know whether I would have shown my work to anyone," she says. "It would have been a private pastime between acting assignments."

While other critics have described Pen's work as "rarified" and "esoteric"--in some way anti-musical theatre--Aibel disagrees. "I don't think Polly rejects the rules of traditional musical theatre. She's a great melodist and creates songs that really resonate." But of course, there's always the curse of comparison. "As younger composers, we've all been under the shadow of the god, who is Sondheim," says Pen. "It's hard, because people love to compare."

That said, the score of The Night Governess yields few clear signs of imitation. Pen's musical influences, ranging from the parlor songs of her youth to good old American musical comedy, combine to create a rich musical stew. Pen's skill as a librettist is also striking. Grand themes concerning time, dreams, even sexual repression erupt melodically from her characters' mouths. "Time," the opening number in Governess, functions to introduce the characters while they await the arrival of Jean Muir:

Time is a moo-oo-oo-ving thing
A thing that moves about us and within us
Never stopping-so it seems that
We are doing nothing with it.


Explaining the rationale behind these lines, Pen demonstrates her inclination to muse on abstractions while driving forward the plot. Hence the portly matriarch Mrs. Coventry (played in the McCarter production by Mary Stout) sees time as a "brooch on her breast," while her dreamy son Ned (Danny Gurwin) wonders ruefully about the origins of time: "I suppose to start it off / God coughed a little cough/ And Click! It all began." "Each character," Pen notes, has "an inner response to the idea of waiting." Fans waiting for the next Polly Pen project may not be surprised to hear that the maverick composer is looking for inspiration, once again, to the literary lights of yesteryear. Asked about her future plans, she whispers conspiratorially, "I'm actually working on an adaptation of Henry James."

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