Safe and sound and out of time til I paint a brand new sky
In February of 2007, Elizabeth Lucas set out to recruit a cast who would join her film as far more than just actors and singers…who would be co-creators and companions on the film’s uniquely creative journey. Casting director Michael Cassara brought in over 120 people for her to audition who fit the description of actor-singer-songwriter – and, as she discovered, New York is teeming with them.
The auditions themselves broke the mold. Lucas was not just interested in each person’s abilities and experience but, even more so, in their personalities, creative energies and emotional realities. "The auditions were also interviews. The actors would start by playing one of their songs, but then I would ask about their impulse for writing it. I asked each person questions about their points-of-view on life and art, about their interests outside of acting and singing, and about their personal histories as well as their own experience of 9/11, whether they were in New York at that time or not," she explains. "It was important to me to put together a group of people who not only could write and sing and act, but who also had life experience and things to talk about outside of their art. On top of that, they also had to have the ability to work with others, to improvise, to express themselves honestly and to write strong, memorable modern songs. I met so many talented people, but that combination could only be found in a very few."
One by one, Lucas ultimately whittled down the long roster of candidates to just 11 hand-picked cast members: Broadway actress and rock singer Becca Ayers (SOUTH PACIFIC), Broadway star Julia Danao-Salkin (LENNON), improv comedian Vedant Gokhale (Monkeys in the Atrium), rising Broadway star Robi Hager (SPRING AWAKENING), harpist-singer-songwriter and Broadway star Erin Hill (Sam Mendes’ CABARET), young pop artist and actress Cassandra Kubinski (FINDING FORRESTER), rocker and first-time actor Brother Love, award-winning songwriter and actor Greg Naughton (THE SWEET REMAINS), theatre veteran, screen actress and real-life survivor Jan O’Dell (CAN’T BUY ME LOVE); composer-lyricist and recording artist Jeremy Schonfeld (DRIFT) and rock singer and Broadway actor Asa Somers (NEXT TO NORMAL).
With the cast in place, Lucas kicked off the rehearsal process with an ice-breaking and imagination-opening exercise inspired by esteemed Quebecois theatre director Robert LePage. "On the first day, I rolled out a huge piece of blank paper and said, ‘You have 10 minutes to draw a map of New York City. Go,’" explains Lucas. "The cast filled the page with not only landmarks and buildings but also iconic New York City characters – and that became our first road-map. From there we started improvising and coming up with characters, only some of whom would make it into the final script."
Each cast member/co-writer came up with several alternate ideas for their own individual characters, and then explored them to see which ones would come alive. "I didn’t set any guidelines for the type of characters that the actors could create – and this was important to me," says Lucas. "When you’re asking someone not only to create a fictional world but to also write a song from that world – which is such an intimate and personal kind of expression – I felt it was essential that these eleven characters arise from something very real inside these amazing people – the alternate reality they might have been if they had made a different choice along the way. The characters are fictional, yes, but the emotions had to be utterly true. That was the heart of the process."
Each day, roiling conversations arose about the film’s themes but Lucas never pushed in any singular direction, allowing the cast to find their own conflicts and connections. "We talked about a lot of things together – about relationships, about change, about patriotism – but for me it was never about dictating to the cast. It was about enabling and sculpting their instincts and shaping those instincts into a cohesive whole," observes Lucas. This resulted not only in complex characters but in individual songs full of intensity, feeling and humor.
As final characters were chosen, relationships emerged and songs came roaring to life, one by one, in shades of hard rock, power pop and soaring ballads, Lucas wove it all together with an underlying structure. "I think of the structure of the film as kind of Cubist, where the refracted subject is the city itself," the director sums up. "The movie contains a multitude of viewpoints that create something new as they intersect. What was most essential to me as the final script came together was the pacing and the tempo and the humor. There is a freedom to the performances, but underneath there is also a foundation. In the end, the characters were so diverse, yet so connected, because the cast was so diverse and forged such strong connections."