Lesbian Love Octagon is an original musical set in the late ’90s, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The story revolves around Sue, a broken-hearted lesbian, whose ex leaves her to hook up with another ex. Add to the mix, Sue’s group of friends (an assortment of ex-girlfriends, naturally) who try to help Sue get over her ex and under someone new. In other words, a whole lot of lesbian drama set brilliantly to music. After a successful and highly acclaimed production in 2010, the show is returning to NYC this summer for a longer and surely even more lesbian run. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the creators of Lesbian Love Octagon, Kim Kressal (book and lyrics) and Will Larche (music and additional lyrics).
AfterEllen.com: How did the idea of Lesbian Love Octagon germinate? Kim: Well, when I came to Will I had a book, songs and lyrics — it was terrible, but there was something there. I had no intention of writing a lesbian musical. I didn’t sit down and say, “Oh, I’m going to do this.” I had been living up here (NYC) with a feminist theatre company and we were doing all sorts of really militant, screaming, avant garde, wacky stuff that nobody wanted to see. Will: (laughs) I did! I liked that kind of stuff! Kim: And then 9/11 happened, and I went home to Florida for a while. But while I was home, I missed the city, my girlfriend and my friends. I had always journal led in song. And kind of as jokes to send (my friends back in New York), I started writing these silly little songs about our lives. I kept writing more and eventually I was like, maybe this is a show. So I started to write a story around it, and then it just, opened from there. Then I gave it to Will, and like I said it was really terrible at that point… Dana (to Will): Was it terrible? Will: I thought it was really terrible. (All laugh) But more than that, I don’t think I was judging it based on its quality, I judged it on the cover of the book. I was the same as Kim was [interested in avant garde theatre], but the gay boy version. But then I just picked it back up, and I said, well maybe if I change this or add this, and before I knew it, I was invested in this musical. Kim trusted me, and this was a good working relationship. Kim: The great thing about our working relationship is that very early on we made two really important commitments that we have held onto. The first is that no matter what this is an equal partnership. The second was that we knew that it was more important to us to be authentic to the queer experience, than it was to be commercially successful. We never expected back then that there’d be any opportunity to have both.
The 2010 cast of Lesbian Love Octagon singing “Ordinary Day at The Wimmin’s Bookstore” photo by Liz Liguori
AE: LLO is set in the late ’90s — post Ellen coming out, pre-gay marriage — definitely a time that was ushering in a lot of change. What for you as writers was so appealing about this time? Kim: Beyond this just being a lesbian love story, it’s about community and lesbian identity. I think that the late ’90s were a time when your visibility as a lesbian was very important. I mean, yes Ellen had come out, but that’s where we were. This was pre-The L Word, the height of third wave feminism. The show takes place in the Lower East Side and at that time, Babeland, Meow Mix and Bluestockings had all just opened. So this area had become the center of the (lesbian) universe. Will: And that is powerful dramatically, because that is something that doesn’t happen anymore it seems, beyond the Internet. Very few people have a center of their universe and of their community anymore. Kim: For me, this story is really about Sue and her trying to figure out who she is beyond her identity, what it means to be a part of the lesbian community, and how that plays into finding love. How much of who you are is just these stereotypes of your community and how much is other stuff? The late ’90s weren’t about assimilating or lesbians being sexy. It was about “I’m publicly a lesbian” We needed to be seen and heard; activism and visibility were at the core of our social scene and our identity was everything to us! I don’t know that that is what drives young lesbians now. I think as we’ve won some battles we’ve given up on some others, but I also think that we’ve become more accepting and more diverse. When I think about coming out now, about being young and queer in 2013, about New York post 9/11, it isn’t the world of these characters and their problems. All of this is to say that I think the late ’90s is the right kindling to ignite a story about lesbian identity and uncertainty, but I think the story itself is timeless.
AE: LLO was an Equity showcase back when it first ran in 2010, correct? I’ve read a lot of great reviews of the show’s first run. People were crazy about it. A few years has past, so why have you decided to bring it back now? Will: Actually, somebody else was the catalyst for this. Kim: Horse Trade, the management company that runs the Kraine Theatre, are about to hit their 15th Anniversary. I mean they do something that nobody else is doing in independent theatre. They have been self sustaining, all of this time — Will: For thousands of productions Kim: They called us about doing the show, last year actually. Essentially what they said to us was we want to launch this new part of Horse Trade, called HT Presents. Their goal is to find work in the indie world that they think is commercially successful and can move to Broadway or Off Broadway. They wanted this to be the show that they launched HT Presents with. So we are co-producing with them.
AE: I can count on one hand the amount of lesbian characters in the musical theatre canon. In fact, there is very little in the way of lesbian visibility on the musical stage in general. Why was it so important to you both to write a show focusing solely on lesbian, bisexual and trans characters? Kim: There was no conscious decision, like, this is missing from musical theatre. But, the deeper we have gotten into this project that has become a much bigger deal to us. We have had commercial interest in the show, but with the exception of Horse Trade, everyone has wanted us to take out some lesbians. Make it less lesbian. “Can’t there be straight characters in this? Can you take lesbian out of the title?” And those are the things that we are unwilling to bend on, because then what’s the point. It just becomes another musical. We are willing to not make it to Broadway or off-Broadway, because of our unwillingness to bend our belief that trans stories, lesbian stories, need to be told in musical theatre. This is our life. This is our reality. Will: My commitment was to write music that was authentic to the characters’ objectives and tactics. That’s what’s most important to me. To write music that turns me on, interests me. Something I want to listen to. Because I’m going to have to. (Laughs)
AE: Tell me about a few of the characters? I know this is probably nearly impossible, cause they are surely all near and dear to your hearts, but its time to play favorites. Will: My favorite is Wendy, Sue’s best friend and ex-girlfriend. She is loud, which I identify with. She’s very much a lesbian, but when you put someone with her personality on stage, she speaks to the gay man in me too. She sings a big number, which is laugh after laugh, and she is kind of the relationship top. She kind of drives her relationship with Jess. I love that subjectivity she has. Kim: I have a very soft spot for the character of Jerry in this show, I think because it’s such a unique storyline. And because he’s a fairly quiet, understated character in this show. He has really honest moments; he has one of the most beautiful songs (“I Knew A Girl”). I think what Will did with these very simple lyrics I gave him, is just spectacular and people respond to it just so wonderfully. But of course, Sue, the main character, she is essentially the every dyke. She’s just kind of this, lost little lesbian, trying to figure out how to make herself work in this world. To fit and fall in love. I mean for me, that’s my story directly. That’s me just trying to speak my own truth.
Melissa Diaz as Darla and Susan O’Dea as Sue in the 2010 production of Lesbian Love Octagon photo by Liz Liguori
AE: Your social media campaign is pretty darn fantastic, and fans can go to your website and listen to some of the hilarious and really clever songs, read your blog, watch original Youtube material. They can even download sheet music, which now that I know, I will totally be doing. Do you think this is the direction that independent theatre is going in? Kim: I think it’s the direction that it should be going in. Nobody can make money or produce anything Off Broadway, and I think the problem is they have not branded themselves. Broadway, you know what it is. Nobody knows what Off Broadway is anymore. They need to rebrand themselves. They need to be theatre that involves people. I think that this is how, not just theatre, but indie art needs to be made. I think that what crowd funding has done. In terms of people’s ability to have more ownership – I mean for Will and I to still be able to be producers at this stage and hopefully the next stage of development for this show, is what is allowing the show to be super queer. I think that if we can prove at this level that look, this works, this show is queer as fuck and it works, then people are going to say, oh yeah it does. Maybe this can work at the next level. I think the only way to prove that is to be engaging directly with your audience.
AfterEllen also had a chance to chat with Lindsay Naas, who originated the role of Wendy in the 2010 production, and will be reprising her role in June. I asked Lindsay to tell us a little more about her involvement with the show and the character of Wendy.
Lindsay Naas: Let me start off by saying how thankful I am that I was able to originate the role of Wendy and that they want me back. It really is a special experience in an actor’s life when you get to truly create a role without any preconceived notions of it from your perspective or the audience’s perspective. When I played Wendy in the 2010 version of the show, I really connected with her. She’s a riot grrl who has a big heart but also is reckless as well. She is passionate and fiery and ridiculous and loves being the center of attention. But you can’t help but love her.
During the span of the show, Wendy is in a tricky situation. She is very much in love with her girlfriend Jess, but has a straying eye and desires to sleep around with other women. However, she can’t stand Jess’s ex-girlfriend, Chris, because she knows that Chris wants to get back with Jess and fears an emotional affair may occur and the relationship will end. Hence her conundrum. Playing the role of Wendy is such a joy for me.
One of the things I love most about Wendy is that she is so out and proud and doesn’t care what other people think about her. When I moved to NYC from Chicago, I was still a little quiet about my gayness and didn’t really have a sense of community yet. I was able to funnel my passions and wants through the character of Wendy. I also love playing her because, quite frankly, Kim and Will wrote her some pretty kickass songs. “Ubiquitous Ex-Girlfriend” is pretty much the embodiment of what I want to be doing onstage all the time, always.
My personal goal in this lifetime is to be an out lesbian actress who is known for her talent but is also a representative of the LGBTQ world in a field where many people still feel the need to be closeted. I feel like playing Wendy is a step toward that goal and is one of the most special experiences I’ve had onstage.
AE: Why should people come see Lesbian Love Octagon? LN: Everyone should see the Lesbian Love Octagon, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, or age. Lesbians should see it because it is a beautiful and honest representation of their community in a brilliant form of entertainment. They’ll get all the little inside jokes and will undoubtedly relate to at least one of the characters. It’s really a magical thing, realizing that a group of people that have been pretty much left out of the entertainment world get to see themselves being brought to life onstage. Straight people should see it because of those exact same reasons. This show is about love. It’s about the love that Kim and Will and everyone working on it has for the LGBTQ community. It really is a love letter for all lesbians… with song and dance!
Lesbian Love Octagon recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the production. Check out their fabulous promo video, and the terrific perks they are offering.
Lesbian Love Octagon is at the Kraine Theater in New York Cty June 5 – 29. You can follow Lesbian Love Octagonon Twitter (@lesbianmusical), Facebook or lesbianthemusical.com, where you can find all sorts of great content including musical numbers, video clips, and even audition information.