Dallas — The North Texas theater community has been teeming with locally created plays and musicals in recent years, created by folks whose names you’re familiar with if you’re following the scene. But perhaps the biggest breakout is by someone who has been working largely unnoticed, outside of Denton at least, for the past few years: composer/lyricist Patrick Emile.
If you haven’t heard his name yet, then get ready.
In February, he was one of five composers to be selected for the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio. Shortly after, he submitted for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, entering the musical As We Lie Still, created with his wife Olivia de Guzman Emile, known for her long run as Christmas Eve in Theatre Three’s Avenue Q, as well as roles at Casa Mañana, Theatre Britain and Denton’s Sundown Collaborative Theatre.
It was selected, and opened July 16 at the Pearl Theatre Company, running through July 27.
To boost his confidence, in May he and playwright Carlos Murillo (dark play, or stories for boys) received the Frederick Loewe Award for musical theater, named for the composer who, with lyricist Jay Alan Lerner, created My Fair Lady and Camelot. That comes with a $15,000 grant for them to create a new work. Murillo, a member of New Dramatists, worked with Patrick at the New Dramatists Seminar.
Patrick, who has a Trinidadian father and an Irish mother, was raised in Connecticut but has been in Texas for 18 years. He studied composition and painting at the University of North Texas and played in several bands with R&B and jazz leanings (such as Phonon and The Logic). That’s how he met Olivia, a first-generation Filipino vocalist who performed in some of those bands. She graduated from UNT’s now-defunct Musical Theater program, and later owned Denton’s Art Six Coffeehouse, a venue where Sundown Collaborative Theatre performed on occasion. The couple sold the coffeehouse last year and moved to Dallas.
Patrick’s adventures in theater music began with writing incidental music for Sundown Collaborative Theatre, including their original show Happily Ever After, which the group took to the New York International Fringe Festival in 2011 (their time there was cut short because of Superstorm Sandy). Patrick composed the music and played it on instruments that evoked a fairy tale feel, including toy piano and xylophone.
As We Lie Still, which focuses on a magician in the early 20th century who looks back on his life, is his first full musical. He also wrote the lyrics; Olivia wrote the book. The show is directed by one of DFW’s top musical theater directors, Michael Serrecchia [who incidentally directed this at the same time as directing Maury Yeston's Phantom for Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas], and stars Michael Robinson (who also costumed), along with Olivia, George Michael Ferrie, Jr., Clinton Greenspan, Erika Larsen and Travis Stuebing, many of them Sundown regulars. Rachel Olsen is musical director and plays piano. Patrick plays percussion.
Look for a review of the show on TheaterJones this week. Right before the group took off for New York, we caught up with Patrick and Olivia after a rehearsal at K.D. Studios, where Olivia and Serrecchia both teach.
Patrick, you’ve been in bands and studied composition, but what was your first major experience with musical theater?
Patrick: I knew nothing about musical theater. As [mine and Olivia’s] relationship grew, my interest in musicals grew. ... We went to New York maybe five or six years ago, I had never seen a Broadway show. We saw Follies…
Olivia: No, it was Curtains. Follies was another year.
Patrick: Right, it was Curtains and Chicago, and from there, I was like “wow this is for real.”
Olivia: I remember when Wicked came out, when we met, and I was like “check out this new Stephen Schwartz,” and he said “what’s that orchestration?”
Why did you start writing for the theater?
Patrick: I had gotten tired of the band scene, and wanted to explore my compositional career. I started writing more art music and transitioned to musical theater a few years ago.
I was writing a lot of songs, and I was—and still am—very much a big fan of jazz and the American songbook, I just didn’t know that many of these songs came from musicals. I was a jazz musician once upon a time, so when I started putting two and two together, it started making more sense.
But it really changed when I started listening to Sondheim. That’s when I realized the absolute height of the form and what composition can be.
Sondheim is always what hooks you. You wrote incidental music for Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s Happily Ever After. Was that your entrée into writing music for the theater?
Patrick: I had done a lot of incidental music for Sundown. I scored music for friends’ shows, and people started asking if I could write a song, and it turned into musicals.
How did you find out about the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio?
Patrick: I caught wind of it on Twitter. I applied and was accepted. They selected five composers, five performers and five playwrights who were New Dramatists members, and they paired us together.
Patrick: It was. Two weeks and eight hours a day. It was all about collaboration, so in my estimation it’s reminiscent of something like Project Runway, although it’s 30 years old and precedes that by  years. We got assignments, like challenges, with a composer, a lyricist and a playwright.
So they give you a situation or character and you create the bones of a musical?
Patrick: Kind of. It was not about the product, but about the process. There would be some prompts, sometimes pretty vague. I mentioned I wanted to do a Rodgers and Hart-type song, and they gave me the word “haiku” to work from, for instance.
Were they presented to audiences at the end?
Olivia: Yes, I saw the final presentation.
Patrick: Because they were pairing each of us together in different ways, at the end of it, you had 25 musical theater scenes or songs. Some of them quite long.
Olivia, you introduced Patrick to musical theater, but in what other ways have you influenced him as a composer?
Olivia: When we were working in bands together, I was always listening for the vocals, to what the singer is doing. That would be in the forefront of my ear, and the guys were looking for the bassline or whatever. He definitely expanded my ear, and he would write songs and I would say “these lyrics don’t make sense” or something like that. I tried to get him to think more like a vocalist. It was about that kind of lyric communication.
Patrick: At that point, I was so immature as a lyricist. Just an understanding from a singer’s perspective, especially a musical theater singer, was helpful. Olivia absolutely opened my eyes and ears to what you’re trying to say; I’m thinking more dramaturgically now.
Where did the idea for As We Lie Still come from?
Patrick: I have a passing interest in magic, I’m not even good enough to be an amateur, but I love the ephemera, I love the elegance and the skill it takes to do it. I was doing some research and came across the word “psychopomp,” which is the entity that guides someone who has just died into the next phase of their existence. Like the Grim Reaper. He’s a psychopomp.
Psychopomps appear in all different cultures and religions for most of recorded history. I wanted to create this entity, like the Boatman in Greek mythology. I then started thinking about putting these ideas together. Also, magical realism as a genre is something I delight in. This idea of having this human condition piece, I wanted to incorporate magic and the idea of the psychopomp into that as well.
What’s the plot?
Patrick: It spans from 1900 to 1920, and there’s a magician, Avi Leiter, who’s in a hospital. He’s telling the story of his rise to fame and his fall from fame. That’s the shortest version of the plot I can tell you.
Is it done memory play-style?
Patrick: Yes, kind of. There are scenes that occur and then you’re back to the present in 1920.
Describe your compositional style.
Patrick: I’m pretty heavily influenced in 20th century minimalism, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, stuff like that, as well as some of the newer alternative sounds coming from New York and Iceland, like Nico Muhly, or Antony and the Johnsons. I’m 31, so stuff like Radiohead was also a big influence; I love those types of shimmers. And Sondheim is huge, of course.
I play with rhythm a lot, more so than you see in most musical theater scores. Repetition is big. It’s about creating musical textures and having these different fabrics that you weave together, all in heightening the lyrical content. So I might have passages that are repetitive but grow or change over certain amounts of time, so it’s the manipulation of time that’s going on as opposed to huge string swells or whatever. That’s pretty evident in this show.
How does that work with the narrative?
Patrick: The show is told non-linearly so another aspect is this idea of a palimpsest, where you create something and you erase it, and you build something on top of it, and you erase that and build something on top of that. Because there is shifting time in this show, that helps elevate that feel. When you see the piece, you never feel very settled—or that’s the intent. Your feet aren’t necessarily steady; it’s a memory as well, and the idea is to heighten that aspect.
How did you get Michael Serrecchia to direct?
Olivia: My long stint with Avenue Q was where I met Michael Serrecchia, and when we moved to Dallas [a year ago] he invited me to start teaching here at K.D. Studio. When we got accepted to NYMTF we asked if he’d do it.
Patrick: I didn’t know him well, but he was my dream director, and I went for it. He read it and said “yes.”
So when you’re accepted into something like this, I’m guessing there’s excitement immediately followed by “oh shit.”
Patrick: It was exactly like that. It was high-fives, and then panic ensues. The first thing that had to happen was to allocate cash quickly [some of it through a crowdfunding campaign]. But really the turning the point for me was that Serrecchia was interested in doing it. That was a coup and I wanted to go for it. If he had declined I’m not sure we would have done it. We probably would have, but it worked out the way we wanted.
Any other musicals you’re working on?
Patrick: Yes. I recently received the Frederick Loewe Award for Musical Theater. I was awarded that through the Loewe Foundation with Carlos Murillo, a Chicago playwright. That award is a grant toward a new project. We have the bones of it, and we’ll start work after we come back, and put that up at New Dramatists in 2015.
What can you tell us about it?
Patrick: The working title is The Ballad Hunters, it’s about ethno-musicologists and field recorders John and Alan Lomax. Carlos did the program with me in February and we took a shine to each other.
What’s your hope for As We Lie Still after the NYMTF?
Patrick: My most realistic goal is that it gets produced, maybe in Dallas. I’m excited to get some good feedback, and that it’s going to stand up to a New York audience. It’s two weeks on a relative shoestring budget. We’re going to put up a wonderful piece, but for me, as the creator, it’s about getting seen and the possibilities for the future.