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INTERVIEW | Britta Johnson And Sara Farb Talk About Kelly V. Kelly

By Paula Citron on May 30, 2023

L-R: Britta Johnson, Sara Farb (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L-R: Britta Johnson, Sara Farb (Photos courtesy of the artists)

You could say composer/lyricist Britta Johnson is one of Canada’s most successful writers of original music theatre. Her show, Life After, has had successful productions in the United States, while another of her musicals, Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, is also slated to be mounted south of the border.

Book writer Sara Farb is best known as a true Canadian musical theatre star. She was a stalwart at Stratford, but has latterly performed the role of Delphi Diggory in both the Broadway and Toronto productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Their intriguing new musical, Kelly v. Kelly, is inspired by an outrageous 1915 court case that took place in New York City. When the 19-year-old heiress, Eugenia Kelly, had an affair with her married tango teacher, Al Davis, her mother, Helen Kelly, had her daughter arrested and charged with incorrigibility, which is equivalent to being declared a juvenile delinquent. Quel scandale! The case was a national cause célèbre.

Produced by The Musical Stage Company, Kelly v. Kelly is currently in previews, and officially opens on May 31 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, running until June 18.

Johnson, 32, and Farb, 36, found time during tech week to join me in a Zoom call.

How did you two meet?

Britta Johnson: It was an instantaneous connection. We were first paired together during The Musical Stage Company’s NoteWorthy development program, which matches playwrights and composers together to experiment with the musical theatre form.

Sara Farb: We also created a piece, He Is Coming, for the company’s REFRAMED program at the AGO in 2016.

Where on earth did you hear about this bizarre court case?

SF: I heard it on a storytelling podcast called The Memory Palace which focuses on anecdotal events in history. I thought it had great potential so I brought it to Britta. She listened to the podcast and was hooked.

You have this supposedly well bred, wealthy young woman, Eugenia Kelly, partaking in this new craze — the tango — this seductive and disturbing new dance, and getting entangled with her dance instructor, which her widowed mother Helen finds intolerable.

BJ: I thought about how much fun it would be to score because the music could have multiple realities. A courtroom drama. Underground dance halls. A choral element. An emotional mother and daughter story. Also, cool music to borrow from — the jazz age.

I found precious little on the case when I tried to do some research.

SF: Our research came mostly from books and articles in the New York Times. In a way, we don’t mind that there was so little information out there, because we could play with the facts and do our own dramatic retelling. And we do take liberties with the story. For example, in our piece, Eugenia waives her right to counsel.

BJ: You could say we were inspired by true events.

What happened to Eugenia in real life?

SF: At first, Eugenia was under house arrest. The trial lasted three days. The judge was known to Helen and ended up giving Eugenia a stern lecture on her need to obey. I think that what really worried Helen is that when Eugenia turned 21, she was going to inherit $1 million left to her by her banker father.

After the trial, Eugenia ran off with Al Davis, and they were together for six years. She ultimately married a Peruvian diplomat. She and Helen sued and counter-sued each other over the estate.

BJ: Eugenia seemed to enjoy the press and attracting attention. For example, she showed up at the trial in an emerald green coat. In fact, in the 1920s, she became one of New York’s leading flappers. She was her own person.

What approach have you taken to Eugenia and Helen’s story in your piece?

SF: It’s the collision of generations, and how the relationships manifest themselves, and how they are able, or not able, to meet challenges. It’s an age of rising feminism, and women in search of autonomy, and how they fit in to that.

BJ: I agree. The main theme is the generational divide and the desire on the part of Eugenia for more freedom — to break loose from her gender and station. The point is that even a woman of status didn’t have control of her own life. The world in 1915 was changing, however. It’s the conflict between a Victorian mother and a flapper daughter.

What about the structure of the piece?

SF: I’d say our structure is big and bold. We’ve taken risks. It’s not predictable nor linear. We’re inviting the audience to come on a ride. It’s challenging but there will be a tremendous pay off at the end. We deal with big themes of the human experience, yet the show is also intimate and personal.

BJ: I should add that Sara understands living inside a musical story. That’s why her book is so strong.

Love And Money, from Kelly v. Kelly, music & lyrics by Britta Johnson, performed by Britta Johnson (Creative Consultation by Tracey Flye; Arrangement by Lynne Shankel; Filmed at Preto Loft)

What about the music?

BJ: The piece is minimal but neoclassical in style, with dense harmonies. Melodies have been my driver, but I move in and out of dissonance as required. Kelly v. Kelly is not through composed, so there is scene work. I’ve also written the ensemble to have a choral voice. I call it riding on a water of music.

Because it’s set in 1915, I’ve borrowed the flavour of ballroom and music hall. I think that the music is fresh and emotional. I hope it sounds different.

Your director is Tracey Flye, who also happens to be a gifted choreographer.

BJ: Dance is important to the narrative language and the fluidity of the narrative. The story moves in time. The piece is its own dance suite, and the dance is folded into the narrative.

SF: The main character lives inside of dance, so the story demands dance. Tracey has made the dance sequences feel seamless. She also drew inspiration from Rudolph Valentino. Part of the design is seeing the characters going in and out of dance halls.

You’ve needed large forces to mount this production.

BJ: There are ten actors. Eugenia, Helen and Al Davis, plus a seven member ensemble playing multitudinous roles such as the judge, lawyer, police, friends, dancers. It’s a fluid ensemble and very theatrical. The orchestra has five musicians with three doubling.

L-R: Eva Foote and Jessica Sherman in Kelly v. Kelly (Photos: Dahlia Katz & Elana Emer, courtesy of CanStage)
L-R: Eva Foote and Jessica Sherman in Kelly v. Kelly (Photos: Dahlia Katz & Elana Emer, courtesy of CanStage)

Were you involved in casting?

BJ: We had a seat at the table because there were complexities in casting. It was important to me to have balance in the ensemble, particularly in the colours of the sonic palette. In fact, the casting has been exquisite, and I can’t believe that the voices are this good.

SF: They are also stupendous actors and the chemistry is incredible. We’re finding out about the characters through them. They also enjoy the process of being in a process, and being ready to make quick adjustments.

What’s happening to you both post Kelly v. Kelly?

BJ: I’ve got a few things on the burner. My sister Anika and I are working on a new piece for Stratford, and both Life After and Dr. Silver are being done in the States.

SF: I’m finishing the run of Harry Potter, and working on a new musical with Anton Lipovetsky.

What about your personal lives?

SF: I have a partner, Josh, who’s not involved in the arts.

BJ: And my relationship is with musical theatre, but you could say I’m single and looking.

Kelly v. Kelly was another show that got caught by COVID.

BJ: We were supposed to start rehearsals in the middle of April 2020, so we were a COVID cancellation. Now here we are, three years late.

SF: It’s a homecoming for us on a lot of fronts.

The Musical Stage Company, in association with Canadian Stage/Kelly v. Kelly, music and lyrics by Britta Johnson, book by Sara Farb, directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye, Berkeley Street Theatre, May 26 to June 18. Tickets [HERE].

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Paula Citron
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