A few years ago I found myself chatting to a young couple who were considering moving to Wilmington. They asked me what I liked best about living here. I answered, “The arts community in Wilmington attracts a wide range of artists, who have a wealth of experience to draw upon, that one could really launch something to the next level here.”
I used the example of Wilmington’s very own multitalented Bryan Putnam, whose musical “The ToyMaker” was an official selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It was hitting the stage around the same time I was having the conversation. Putnam wrote the book, music and lyrics for “The ToyMaker”—as well as for “Trouble in Shameland,” which was produced at the Fringe NYC theatre festival. “The ToyMaker” started as a works-in-progress in 2005 at what was once Wilmington’s City Stage Theatre (now N. Front Theatre). By 2011 it won Best Original Score at New York’s West Village Musical Theatre Festival. (Since, Putnam has moved back to Wilmington to begin work on another project.)
Right now, we have another Wilmington artist who is making the leap to the New York Musical Theatre Festival: Christopher Dayet’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray” as a musical. Dayet wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, and shares the title of “music writer” with Kevin Mucchetti. In the middle of trying to get the show up for the festival, Dayet was kind enough to share some insight with us about his journey and what’s on the horizon.
encore (e): Why does Wilde’s “Dorian Gray” need to be set to music?
Christopher Dayet (CD): Why not? It has everything in it that makes a good musical: love, romance, drama, comedy, play-within-a-play, fight sequences, revenge, murder, and art. When I checked back in 2013, there were only one or two attempts to turn it into a musical. Since, there have been a handful more, but none have made it to Broadway yet.
While many would associate the story with vanity and narcissism, I’ve been drawn to the theme of temptation. When we have things we want in front of us, what do we do? Do we practice restraint or give in? And once we give in, can we stop? Dorian has never experienced “life” when he meets Lord Henry, and he is introduced to new sensations. This is what prompts him to want give his soul in order to have eternal youth and beauty.
I was also interested in telling the story that perhaps Oscar wasn’t allowed to tell. Some scholars believe he wrote himself into the novel through the character of Basil, the artist. It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was illegal to be “different.” It was announced last fall there are plans to have the queen exonerate all those men in the UK who were charged with gross indecency. Oscar is on that list.
e: When did you start working on the piece?
CD: I started working on “Dorian Gray” in 2013, while I was living in Wilmington. I had been writing primarily family-friendly content, and wanted to experiment with something a little more adult-oriented/edgy, and that is when I discovered Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It’s funny, but as quickly as I started adapting it, I gave up. The novel does not translate well for the stage, and at the time, I didn’t know exactly how to “rewrite” the story for the stage. I composed a theme, which later became the Overture and is heard throughout the show. The idea went in a folder, and I left Wilmington to pursue my M.A. in theatre at Villanova University.
After taking playwriting at Villanova, I had this crazy idea to revisit Dorian Gray. I spent the summer of 2015 in Ireland, studying theatre with some of my classmates at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre. It was there I learned Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, and our first stop on our “tourist tour” was his statue in the park across from his birthplace. I took a side trip to London and Paris, and spent a little quiet time with Oscar at his grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery. I told him I wanted to honor his story, but I was going to need his help. He’s been there through every step.
My thesis proposal was approved in late fall 2015, and I began writing the majority of the script and music in December, while on Christmas vacation in Wilmington. Within five months, I had the entire show—music, lyrics and book—completely finished. A stage reading was held in early June 2016 as part of my thesis, and I was honored with distinction for my work. My friend, Kevin Mucchetti, wrote the piano arrangements for my thesis project. Later that summer, Kevin became my cowriter, as we prepared “Dorian Gray” for whatever the next step would be.
e: What else have you written (composed)?
CD: As a musical playwright, I’ve written a 10-minute musical, “Check, Please!”, and I cowrote the musical, “Follow Your Dreams,” with Wilmington resident Barbara Gallagher. I’ve also written the plays “A Christmas Carol: Slightly Abridged” and “The Chronicles of Percy Pickwick.” As a composer, I’ve composed over 100 religious songs, anthems, hymns, psalms, and acclamations in both English and Spanish. I think my greatest accomplishment as a church songwriter was writing an entire psalm series in Spanish, entitled “The Salmo Project.” I was recently commissioned to write a song for the Contemporary Choir at the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary in Wilmington.
e: What is it like to see your work move to such a large stage?
CD: It still hasn’t sunk in. I’m now living in Naples, Florida, and teaching performing arts at a charter high school on Marco Island. While I’m doing that, I’m doing rewrites and producing the show remotely. The cast and crew have been workshopping and rehearsing for several weeks. I’ll be joining them in the rehearsal room soon.
e: What was the process of getting here?
CD: I stumbled on the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) and a few other festival/competitions last fall. Kevin and I had been doing some rewrites based on the feedback I received over the summer. NYMF seemed like a big deal, and it seemed the show would at least be given a full read and listen by an actual human being. I knew it was out of my league, but I thought, Why not? It was sort of a dare to myself. Never in my wildest dreams did I think, out of 200 worldwide submissions, we’d make it to the top 10!
Self-producing the show has had its ups and downs. It’s a new venture for me, but my training at Villanova (and at UNCW) has really helped prepare me. I’m also working with several of my classmates from Villanova, and it’s really helpful to have people you trust and respect working on your show with you, especially when you are over 1,000 miles away.
e: What do you hope will happen as a result of the festival?
CD: It’s rare, but some shows featured at NYMF have gone on to receive Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. We will be inviting some potential producers to come see the show. There’s also a possibility I could get an agent. If nothing else, I hope people will be introduced to the world of Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray, and we’ll get some great feedback to strengthen the show and start marketing it to potential theatre companies.
e: What did you enjoy most about living in Wilmington?
CD: I have so many happy memories of Wilmington. From my early years, performing at Thalian Hall, to my later years, teaching, directing and leading music at various churches. I spent almost half of my life in Wilmington. I find myself still saying, “I’m going back home to Wilmington for a bit,” whenever I’m planning a visit.
I miss Masonboro Island. I would kayak there with friends all of the time and write. It was so inspirational. I haven’t found a similar place in Naples or on Marco Island yet—though sitting in the sun, poolside, in the middle of the winter yielded some great rewrites.
e: What else are you working on right now?
CD: Right now, it is “Dorian Gray” rewrites 24-7 and trying to raise the $14,000-plus we need to send the show to NYC (www.gofundme.com/doriangrayonstage). My focus is on building the newly formed performing arts program at Marco Island Academy, but I’m sure I’ll be writing something new shortly. I don’t know how to relax and do nothing.
e: What is next?
CD: I’ve had an offer to collaborate with a composer and write the script to a World War II musical. The composer has a show in the festival as well. We’ll see!
e: Advice to those trying to get started?
CD: People say in the performing arts world, you need to be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat true. I’ve been trying to get my work (music and theatre) performed or published for years. I took a chance. Took a risk. And in a few short weeks, I’ll be in New York City – the theatre capital of the US – sharing my work with a new, wide and critical audience. It’s the greatest feeling in the world and also the scariest!
I started teaching playwriting for the first time this semester. The best advice I have for aspiring playwrights is to keep a journal. Make a list of 20 ideas for plays. Narrow them down to five and expand on them—what all happens in the play? From there, pick three and write a scene for each. See where it leads. Also, always catalog new ideas or unusual situations/conversations you see/hear in public (people-watching is great material). This way you always have new material.