“Becoming Nancy” is a socially ambitious musical set just outside of London in 1979, that lands more successful political punches than any show currently on Broadway. The world premiere runs through Sunday at the Alliance Theatre in Midtown Atlanta. This show about David Starr (played by the ecstatic Zachary Sayle), a gay teenager vying for a role in his high school’s production of “Oliver!” tackles every issue under the sun. David’s best friend, Francis Basey (played by powerhouse Jasmine Rogers), is a female, black immigrant. I truly appreciate a story that strives for honesty, but I needed to know the bounds of the truth in a story like this. In other words, in the context of a musical comedy, how much can one genuinely create a story in truth? This was the focus of my interview with acclaimed writer Elliot Davis, as we walked through Atlanta from the Alliance Theatre, to the outside of his apartment building.
Tyler Bey/VOX ATL: So I’ve been thinking about the truth in theater. I understand that concept a lot more in a straight play, but in elements like comedy, and in a musical, where there’s dancing and singing, how do you find the truth in that?
Elliot Davis: Well it’s hard. It’s something that Jerry [Jerry Mitchell, Tony Award Winner and “Becoming Nancy” director/choreographer] had said to me: “If I’m writing a scene you’ve got to say the things that are hard to say.”
Bey: Say the things that are hard to say…
Davis: And you’ve gotta put it in the mouths of characters, and they’ve got to really genuinely believe it. So when I’m writing, I’m like “What’s the real heart of this?” And if they can’t say it, “What are they scared of saying?”
Bey: Excellent. It’s the subtext.
Davis: So that’s one way of seeing it. But Jerry said something to me in a part of the process: “The thing is these are play scenes.” And I was like yeah. They’re written with depth, and so many musicals, a lot of musicals, they just go from one musical [number] to the next. They don’t have the depth of character. But that’s what I try to do. And you can do that in two lines. What you can’t do is nothing. You can’t just write bland. You’ve got to write some character for them. So if they’re going to be on stage, the audience has to recognize them in some way. That’s what I try and do in everything I write, but musicals are harder because you get less time to do it.
Bey: I want to ask about the relationships between the characters. How you both play into concepts we already know, and relationships we’re familiar with, but also taking apart some of those stereotypes. In America at least, the black role is typically the best friend. However, although on the surface, that’s what we have here, “Becoming Nancy” goes into so many more facets than anyone was expecting.
Davis: I looked at it as what’s specific to that character and why she’s picked on. Well, they say she gets picked on because she’s black. And he’s picked on because he’s gay. And if you set that up, you can’t just tell the gay ones challenged, you have to tell the other person’s, the black woman’s perspective. And if you’re telling the story of someone suffering racism, you have a responsibility to deliver from that person’s perspective. So the moment she’s attacked from these hideous neo-Nazi people, you have to see it through.
Bey: Yes, you have to see it through!
Davis: Because something really bad happens to her. Now in other musicals, she might just be the best friend to support the show, but actually, [David] learns from [Francis] and [Francis] learns from [David].
Bey: And that’s so rare to see musicals do.
Davis: And that’s what a friendship is. I said to the team “Look if she’s gonna have this hideous thing happen to her, you can’t leave it not dealt with.” She absolutely has to have a moment where…
Bey: It’s such a great moment.
Davis: Yes, and it’s really important [Francis’ Second Act musical number “My Skin”]. But if you were going to write a traditional musical you might just do the “black-friend-supports-the-lead-role.” But I was always taught when writing, treat your B characters like your A characters…The more notes you get about “Oh my goodness I really love that character. Now, can we get more from them?” Then you know you’re onto a winner.
Bey: I really love how you’ve written that character especially. And I want to ask how this musical fits into today’s time especially dealing with immigration?
Davis: Well they said in the beginning, “Look, I was born here”, and the bully, Nazi says “Well, you don’t belong here.” We hear that all the time today. But it’s anyone different. It’s anyone they decide is an outsider. And then they finger point and they say “It’s your fault.” And that’s about the economy, health service, welfare — “It’s your fault!”
Bey: Because you’re the outsider.
Davis: And of course it never really is their fault. And it takes education, it takes enlightenment, and to see things from a different point of view. Look, this show is set in 1979. But it’s a story about today. And what we were amazed by is how people have taken to the story, because it’s nostalgic, but it’s current and forward-thinking in its essence. So that’s how we did it.
Bey: Excellent! So, as you know, I was in the audience with my very loud high school friends…
Davis: I loved it!
Bey: Part of me wanted to shush them, but then I felt like this story was for them anyway.
Davis: Look, they were loud.
Bey: They were!
Davis: But they were into it! And that’s how they express themselves. And who are we, to say, “Oh, do you mind not laughing so loud?” What’s that about? No! Express yourself. If you’re moved and you wanna whoop and holler whoop and holler because they were into it! And I loved it. I loved it and I thought it was a very special evening.
“Becoming Nancy” is truly a one of a kind show. See it before it’s gone for Broadway. Now through October 6 at the Alliance Theatre. For more information or tickets, go to the Alliance website.