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A Train Plays: From Concept to Stage in 28 Hours

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A Train Plays: From Concept to Stage in 28 Hours

Performing Arts

A Train Plays: From Concept to Stage in 28 Hours

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No waiting in line for the New York Subway, but you might have to elbow aside an actor or two. There's been a fad in New York doing fast art, one day plays novels and films. The classic events in this genre are known as the A train plays, musicals and plays created on the A train, the cities longest subway line.

NPR'S Margo Adler followed more than 40 performers, writers, composers and directors through 28 hours, from the first line on paper to the first performance.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Jeremy Schonfeld holes up in the corner of a car on the A train, a huge keyboard on his lap, paper and pencil in hand, trying to write two songs in the time it takes for the train to go from Far Rockaway in Queens to the tip of Manhattan, 32 miles in a couple of hours. The rest of his team, Edie Cowan, the director, and Stephen O'Rourke, the librettist, sit across from him. The basic idea for the musical, two evil couples are on a train gossiping and scheming about how to advance their careers until they face an evangelist with dire predictions.

Mr. JEREMY SCHONFELD (Songwriter): (Singing): The A train to hell moving closer to oblivion. It's hotter can't you tell they're on the A train to hell. There ain't much time for changing course, you must remorse, give up your evil, wicked ways.

Mr. STEPHEN O'ROURKE (Librettist): You must remorse doesn't really - that's not really proper right? You must remorse.

Mr. SCHONFELD: Feel remorsed, I used repent in my other one. I want to use remorse because course/remorse, you know.

ADLER: But let's back up a moment. Before Schonfeld writes his songs he gets a script from a playwright who spent the previous two hours scribbling on the train from upper Manhattan to Far Rockaway. And that's where everyone meets up. Writers, composers, directors. There are six different teams creating four musicals and two plays, each about 20 minutes long. The actors for each play and musical are chosen at random, pieces of paper picked out of bag. The directors and composers are also assigned randomly.

Unidentified Man: Two of you will have a director/choreographer. Two of you will have a director and a choreographer separately.

ADLER: Each team will work in a different subway car. Before boarding the train in Queens, director Michael Dulling, a dulling, is worried.

Mr. MICHAEL GULLING (Director): I have no idea what I'm getting myself into. It's like - it's like a scavenger hunt trying to find a play, you know?

ADLER: When I tell Larry Feeney, the creator and producer of the A train plays, that it seems counterintuitive that something done so fast would be any good, he replies...

Mr. LARRY FEENEY (Creator/Producer, A Train Plays): The thing of it is, is that you don't have time to block yourself. You have to actually let your artist breathe and live and not kill him with a critic. So it is a very collaborative, intuitive, artistic endeavor.

ADLER: As the teams form outside a McDonald's in Far Rockaway, they immediately start figuring out how the actors will fit in. Cowan, Schonfeld and O'Rourke discuss who they got.

Mr. O'ROURKE: So I have Christine. This is the one person I didn't know, Eric Gillette.

Ms. EDIE COWAN (Director, A Train Plays): I don't know him.

Mr. SCHONFELD: I know he has sort of like a basso profundo kind of speaking voice. He was the - the ringmaster for the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, let's get ready to rumble.

Mr. COWAN: In real life?

Mr. SCHONFELD: In real life. In real life.

ADLER: The teams board the train, each taking the corner of a different subway car. In one car the musical is about a couple taking a train to grandma's funeral. And yes, each play has to take place on the train. It seems the woman threw a surprise party for her 97-year-old grandmother, but when everyone yelled surprise, grandma had a heart attack and died. Now the woman is filled with guilt. The librettist is Craig Pospisil, the songwriter Brian Nash, the director David Brind, the choreographer is Tricia Brouk. As Nash writes the song, the team comes up with ideas.

Mr. BRIAN NASH (Songwriter): I think she killed her hamster when she was seven. You know, she - she's convinced she's going to die alone and be eaten by dogs in her apartment.

Mr. DAVID BRIND (Director): By cats.

Mr. NASH: Huh? Cats? She's going to be eaten by cats? Okay. More pathetic, yeah. Dead cat lady. Okay. Oh, that's good.

ADLER: As for Nash's title for the first song.

Mr. NASH: God Hates Me and I Don't Think I'm All That Great Myself is the full title. Does that work?

Mr. BRIND: (unintelligible)

Mr. NASH: All right. Good. I'm just making sure.

ADLER: About an hour later at the very tip of Manhattan, Nash has a rough draft which he plays on his keyboard in the station.

Mr. NASH: (Singing) I'm gonna die all alone. My 16 cats will eat my corpse. Your love left long ago. I live alone, I see divorce. My luck ran out so long ago. That is why I say I need two more words here. 'Cause God hates me and I don't think I'm all that great myself.

ADLER: Librettist Craig Pospisil, an old timer at the A train plays, says working fast can get amazing results. He remembers finally getting a play published he had worked on for two or three years.

Mr. CRAIG POSPISIL (Librettist): That same week I got the call about this other A train play of mine that I'd written in less than two hours getting published in a collection. And I thought, geez, I've been thinking too much. You know, because there's something about the rawness of it and the fact that it's just kind of spilling out of you and onto the page and that you don't have time to think that produces something.

ADLER: The A train goes underground for portions of the ride and is elevated in others. The train is quiet and empty at the beginning but gains noise and passengers as it goes through Manhattan. Nicole Argeris(ph), a book editor, sits down next to one of the teams. She's holding a large manuscript.

Mr. POSPISIL: Are you an editor?

Ms. NICOLE ARGERIS (Book Editor): I am an editor. Yes. Everyone's doing - we're all doing our creative processes on the train, right?

ADLER: A group of jimbay(ph) players come into the same car. At Columbus Circle in Manhattan, everyone gets out and meets in front of a Kinkos. The scripts and songs, many handwritten, get copied. Then they head for New World Stages, a theater on 50th Street, where the actors do a brief read-through of the works and the singers record the songs so they can go home and learn them. It's the first time the teams hear any of the other teams' work. Nash plays the song God Hates Me and a second song in the musical which gets a lot of laughs.

Mr. NASH: (Singing) You can read your Dianetics, but the aliens won't take you away. You can send your son to football but he still might end up gay. There's a light at the end of the tunnel but it's probably a train.

ADLER: The next day rehearsals are taking place in six different rooms at the theater. Now Susan D'Abruzzo(ph), who was a Tony nominee in Avenue Q, is singing the song and working with the director and composer.

Ms. SUSAN D'ABRUZZO (Singer): (Singing) Okay. But the aliens won't take you away. You can send your son to football but he still might end up gay. There's a light at the end of the tunnel but it's probably a train. So just lie flat and let it happen.

ADLER: Meanwhile the band has been working on all the songs and God Hates Me gets a full dress rehearsal.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing) I thought that by now my life would be much less of a trial. I thought I'd have a house, a husband, some kids, Italian style, I never though I'd be the mess that I've become. And knowing that I wouldn't blame you if you run, because God hates me and I don't think I'm all that great myself.

ADLER: Finally that night, the theater is full for the performance of the six plays and musicals. And many of the songs, like Jerry Schonfeld's song about the A train to hell, bring down the house.

GROUP: (Singing) A train to hell. (Unintelligible) chance to get the hell off this train.

ADLER: The A train extravaganza takes place whenever the spirit moves. Once a year, every few months. From the sound of things on this night, they'll be getting back on the train someday soon. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

ELLIOTT: You can read a Q&A with Lawrence Feeney, the creator of a one day play, at

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