At home with new musical: Q&A with Marianne Pillsbury

Marianne Pillsbury has written the book and lyrics for a new musical, "Strong Female Character," which she is debuting at this year's PortFringe theater festival.

Local playwright and composer Marianne Pillsbury, who grew up in South Portland and now lives in Cape Elizabeth, has debuted her new musical, “Strong Female Character,” at this year’s PortFringe theater festival, which is going on now.

The last staging of Pillsbury’s show is scheduled for Sunday, June 26, at Portland Stage Company’s Studio Theater on Forest Avenue. This is the second time that Pillsbury has staged a new show at PortFringe, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

The goal of PortFringe, according to the festival website, “is to support theater and performance artists, to encourage experimentation and innovation and to provide an accessible, affordable outlet for exciting work that enriches our creative community.”

In “Strong Female Character,” Pillsbury takes iconic fictional female characters from film and literature out of context and re-imagines them with new story lines. Her characters include Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” Marge Gunderson from “Fargo” and Princess Leia from “Star Wars,” among others.

She raised money through a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund the production. The show is directed by Ariel Francouer, with musical direction by David Delano and choreography by Thressa Willett. The four actors cast in the show are Kate Davis, Nicole Mokeme, Joanna Clarke and Lynnea Harding.

Pillsbury grew up in South Portland and graduated from South Portland High School in 1990. She went on to Brown University, where she majored in English and American literature. This fall she will begin work on a master’s degree in theater education.

After graduating from Brown, Pillsbury spent 20 years living and working in New York City, where she did everything from being an advertising copywriter to fronting a rock band. She also spent several summers at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, where she led songwriting workshops for girls ages 4 to 18.

Before moving back to Maine last year, Pillsbury was the communications and musicians program manager for the Jazz Foundation of America. Her time there and at the Willie Mae camp inspired her to write her first musical, a semi-autobiographical show called “Depression: The Musical.”

This week Pillsbury spoke with the Current about her journey back to Maine and her hopes for the future of “Strong Female Character.”

Q: What brought you back to Maine and why did you settle in Cape Elizabeth?

A: My father passed away two years ago and I started coming back a lot more often to see my mom. I honestly never thought I would move back to Maine, but last year I came back just for the summer and liked being here so much that I decided to stay. I’ve been staying with my mom in Cape Elizabeth, but ultimately, I would like to settle back in South Portland.

Q: What prompted you to write “Strong Female Character,” and how did you choose which women to include?

A: I was taking an advanced lyric writing workshop in New York City last spring and our assignment was to write a musical theater song cycle, which is loosely defined as a collection of theatrical songs with some type of common theme but not necessarily a storyline or dialogue. I had already written a song many years ago from the perspective of Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz.” I re-imagined her as a single woman in her late 30s still living with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. I also had a song called “Hitchcock Lady” about how I envied how calm, cool, collected and coiffed Hitchcock’s leading ladies usually remain even though they are always entangled in suspense. So, I decided to go with a theme of fictional female characters taken out of their original stories.

The ideas for characters and scenarios just started to flow. I decided which women to include partly based on my own favorite fictional characters and partly on research I did about which characters are considered strong in the sense that they are fully developed with a range of human traits and emotions. I had a lot of fun writing this show and look forward to adding more characters for the full-length version.

Q: Did you also write original music and lyrics for the show, and how would you describe the songs?

A: Yes, I wrote original music and lyrics for the show. I’m a songwriter first and foremost. My songs tend to be catchy pop songs. 1980s pop music influenced me a lot, although, with this show, I was trying to stretch myself to write more conventional musical theater songs. My goal is to make the tune upbeat and catchy and the lyrics deliver a more serious message, so you end up getting refrains like “feminism ain’t a 4-letter word.”

Q: How did you get your show into PortFringe, and why did you want to debut it here?

A: PortFringe is a by-lottery festival, so getting in is luck of the draw. One of the reasons I wanted to participate is because I wanted to have a deadline for myself to finish this show and not spend years and years working on it before putting it in front of an audience. Also, being newly back to the Portland theater scene, it was a great way to get involved, get connected and introduce my work to the community here. Fringe festivals provide a down-and-dirty, more affordable way to get your work out there.

Q: What are some of the difficulties in writing a full-fledged musical?

A: Well, musicals tend to be written by teams – a book writer, a lyricist and a composer. So far, I have been doing it all myself, but I look forward to collaborating one of these days. The version of “Strong Female Character” I’m presenting at PortFringe is not what I would call a full-fledged musical. For one thing, we are limited to an hour for PortFringe, so, this is kind of a teaser.

The challenging part of writing a musical is bringing in the right team to develop the show. In musical theater, there are more team members than for a straight play. In addition to a director, you need a music director and a choreographer. I definitely found the perfect director in Ariel Francoeur, who helped to make edits up until the last minute of the last rehearsal. And, I wrote the finale song just two weeks ago.

Q: What are some of the joys of writing, creating a musical?

A: The joys are many. Writing for theater is the most satisfying kind of writing that I do because I get to put my work in front of an audience and see, hear and feel their response to it, all live. I love making people laugh with my ideas and my words. Plus, I get to collaborate with a bunch of other theater artists, who have skills and talents that I don’t have and who contribute to what I’ve created to make it even better and elevate it to another level.

Q: Will you also be acting in the show?

A: No. In fact, this is the first songwriting I’ve done that I will not be performing myself. At one point during rehearsals, I got a little jealous of the actors because they looked like they are having so much fun playing these roles. If I were in the show, though, I would have been playing Veronica Sawyer, Bridget Jones, Hermione Granger and Annie Wilkes, among others.

Q: What do you hope audiences get from seeing the show, and what are your plans for the show’s future?

A: There’s definitely a feminist message in this show about creating female characters who are compelling and entertaining and telling stories that feature a strong woman. In terms of the future, I will probably do another rewrite based on what I’ve learned from putting up this one-hour staged reading and the audience response to it. This production is really somewhere between a staged reading and a workshop. The actors are not off-book but there is some choreography and lots of props.

A closer look

“Strong Female Character” will be staged at the PortFringe theater festival on Sunday, June 26, at 12:30 p.m., at the Portland Stage Co. studio, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. See www.portfringe.com/tickets for tickets and more information.

Marianne Pillsbury has written the book and lyrics for a new musical, “Strong Female Character,” which she is debuting at this year’s PortFringe theater festival.