Vistazos:: Bibliophile by José Nateras and Michlle J. Rodriguez
How far would you go, and how hard would you fight, to feel like you belonged?
This question is just one of many asked by BIBLIOPHILE: A New Musical, written by José Nateras with music and co-written lyrics by Michelle J. Rodriguez. BIBLIOPHILE explores horror genre fiction, chosen family, and how belonging is as much a promise as it is a feeling.
BIBLIOPHILE tells the story of the Andrés and his Tía Sandra as they navigate the stormy waters of gentrification, breakups, and (gasp!) murder. The characters struggle with broken hearts and broken promises, all while a mysterious stranger lurks just outside their bookshop. José and Michelle were drawn by how they could tell an unexpected story in this musical, one that features strong Latina women, LGTBQ characters, and intergenerational family relationships.
I sat down with Michelle and José to chat a bit about their process, where the piece came from, and what it was like working with each other.
How did you and Michelle meet?
J: We met—
M: It’s a great story
J: We were put in contact by Nancy [Garcia–Loza], who we all know and love. She’s another of the playwrights in el Semillero, and I had mentioned to her that I was writing this musical. When she met Michelle she contacted me like immediately—
J: and was like, hey I know you’re working on this musical, I just met this composer, I can put you in touch if you want, and then she did.
M: In the past few months, I’ve been connected by the ALTA community through a lot of different ways. I met Ivan Vega, who is the Executive Director of Urban Theater Company, and while we were having a meeting in Café Colao he introduced me to Nancy, and then Nancy e-introduced me to everyone in el Semillero and immediately email introduced me and Jose being like, “Jose this is this young composer that I met” and I was like “Nancy, you don’t know me from Adam. I’ve told you I’m a composer, but like you don’t know—“ She was like “Oh I just know, I’m just gonna connect you.”
So it’s amazing how the reverberations of those connections have been really powerful for me. She also introduced me to Sandra Delgado, and I’m currently understudying her role in her show LA HAVANA MADRID at Steppenwolf, which is such an amazing process to be a part of. So yeah, I wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Bibliophile, and I have another musical in development called JIRAN, which is about Jordanian women, and Puerto Rican women based on stories from my life. I’m also working on a show called EASTO WESTO, which is being produced at ANT Fest at Ars Nova this summer. And I’m going to be in that.
Great! So José, tell us five quick things about where Bibliophile came from.
J: Okay. I had been working at this restaurant called Cherry Circle Room, which is located downtown. I was a host there and one of my coworkers was Himabindu Poroori. She is one of the curators for Salonathon, which if you don’t know is a weekly occurrence at Beauty Bar where they do new art, avant-garde sort of stuff. It’s a reading series, music performance, all of these different things. I had mentioned that I am an actor and writer and she actually invited me to participate in one of their evenings that had the theme of “Promises, Promises”. I let that sit in my head for a little while and I ended up writing this short little piece under the name “Bibliophilia” at the time. I had Alejandro Tey, who actually performed Andrés in the reading. He did it along with Sarah Sawicki, and we performed it at Salonathon last May.
It dealt with the themes of broken promises, the sort of vows that we make, the vows that we break and all of these different things, and it was something that I thought was fun and interesting. It came to me based off my own interests and aesthetics as a writer and a person. That was it. It was just this little five-page scenelet and it definitely had the feeling that it could be part of something larger.
I’d always loved musicals and I knew that one of the next challenges I wanted to set for myself was to write a musical because I love the form. I had been exploring a lot of newer musicals at the time and was listening to new things. I was excited at the idea of writing a musical, so around August or September when I started my first semester of grad-school. One of the projects that I set for myself was to expand that short little playlet into a full length musical. By the end of the first semester, which would have been December, I had a first act with drafts of lyrics for all of the songs. That scenelet ended up being the last scene of the first act. Nancy put Michelle and I in contact around March.
M: We were baffled at the reading that we did, we were like, “Oh my god we only literally met each other in March.” I think it was like under a week later that we had kind of signed on the dotted line, like “Yeah we’re gonna work on this thing together.”
“It was a world that I could wrap my head around and could envision.”
J: By March I basically had the full draft of the entire, two-act, full-length musical, and had drafts of lyrics for all of the songs. I’m someone who is kind of interested in form and structure, so I knew where the songs would go and the sort of dramatic function that we were looking at the songs to have. At that point Michelle came on! I hadn’t done a lot of lyric writing before. It was my first crack at being a lyricist and Michelle really did some great work in terms of guiding me through that process and creating some really beautiful music, just kind of embracing what I gave her.
M: Yeah, it was the first time I had ever been part of process like this.
I’ve written musicals, but I’ve written them top to bottom start to finish, or I’ve had a collaborator where they’re writing the book and I’m writing the lyrics. So when José presented me with this project, I thought this was a neat way to grow as a composer, because I had never composed for just someone else’s words and work.
It was amazing to start that collaboration. All the stuff that’s hard for me and the things that I hate to do the most as a musical theater writer: the compelling dialogue that brings us into moments when characters can’t help but sing; José was creating that. That was already present, and he had created a very vibrant world. It was also very real for me because the instant I started reading the script, it was like “Oh a little bookstore right off the Damen stop,” which is just a few stops away from where I live in Logan Square. It was a world that I could wrap my head around and could envision. He set it up for me and it was amazing to come in and write the music for a world that was very fleshed out already.
J: And even though musical theater is something that I’ve always loved, this is my first crack at it as a medium. This piece is very in line with my own aesthetics, and the work that I’m interested in and the work I create. It explores a lot of themes that are very prevalent throughout my work. The cast consists of primarily Latinx characters, queer-identified characters, and explores themes of relationships and this sort of heightened genre feel which for this piece, has got this kind of crime, horror genre aesthetic.
M: Which was fun for me coming in because it was unlike anything I’ve ever made.
J: Also it was comedic. Those are things that I would say are definitely trademarks of my writing. This sort of dark comedy and exploration of genre tropes and clichés as a way, especially when you refract those stereotypes through a lens of queer and latinx identity, allows you to explore things that you take for granted in a lot of narratives. It allows you to see some new things that I find really kind of important to me as a writer to unpack.
J: Working on the project as a whole has really allowed me to explore these ideas about what a romantic storyline should look like.
This is a story where it isn’t necessarily about ending up happily ever-after with the “love-interest” that the story might usually see you with, but rather relying on familial and friend-based relationships and the sort of love you have with your family and the family that you choose. I find that really important, especially when the family consists of these strong Latina women and these intergenerational Latinx familial relationships. It was something that I was really excited to unpack.
So yeah, that’s kind of where BIBLIOPHILE came from. I was able to diffuse a lot of my interests and different influences into creating something I found new and interesting. I was really glad and excited to get an amazing composer and collaborator in Michelle. I asked a lot of her you know? There are 18 songs in the piece, and she was totally down for it. It ended up being quite a gift.
Where do you see this piece going, what is its life like now that it’s been shown and lived in public?
M: Far! Really far.
J: That’s a very good question.
“…you’re inviting producers into the room and seeing, feeling what the audience response is hoping you have the people in the room who are going to see what you see in the show, you know that spark and that heart.”
M: In preparing for a public reading I did so much more than I would have had we been working towards anything else. I look back at the last few months I’ve been working on this, and it feels like we have something ready for development. I think its ready to be seen and read, the recordings of the music are ready to be listened to.
José’s going to be gone this whole summer; he’s one of the fine actors at the Illinois Shakespeare festival in Normal, IL this summer. So I think we’re taking a bit of a back seat to digest feedback we got and to get another pass at things now that we’ve seen things with actors.
That’s the first time I’ve heard the full songs in order, so there’s a lot to be learned for that, but I think it’s ready for development. That’s what I feel like at least.
J: You know it’s really exciting because one of the missions of el Semillero is to not only develop these voices of up and coming Latinx playwrights, but also to generate material, to create new work that can go on and get produced not only around the city but also nationally. We’ve got alumni in New York, you know, Guadalís del Carmen and Juan Villa who were parts of the first cycle of Semillero who were a part of the first cycle of Semillero. It’s really nice to have the notion that yes, we’re writing and we’re growing and improving our craft, but we’re also creating work that is meant to be shared, and shared through productions.
This piece, as opposed to some other pieces that I’ve worked on as actually struck up some interest from people who are producer minded asking to have the book sent to them and recordings of the songs sent to them.
Where those things end up going, I don’t really know per se, but it’s kind of part of the exciting thing, you know, new work. As Michelle was saying, we’re in a place where we’re set for development and production in terms of what that might mean in different ways, especially musical theatre which is a little new developmentally for me.
M: You know it’s funny, it’s new for me too because the shows that I’ve written—I’m only emerging in the professional theatre world here in Chicago, I mean I’ve written musicals before but it’s always to production, college productions basically. And EASTO WESTO, the project that I’m doing now is another huge foray into that. You know, you’re having reading or you’re having what feels like a developmental performance of the show where you’re inviting producers into the room and seeing, feeling what the audience response is hoping you have the people in the room who are going to see what you see in the show, you know that spark and that heart. It was really cool to do this reading at Victory Gardens because there were people in the audience who definitely saw that.
“Personally as a playwright and an actor it’s a mission for me to you know create the sort of work I would be interested in doing.”
J: We’ve got a really distinctive piece, and we’ve got a unique voice—
M: Yeah I don’t think there are any other Latino writers, at least musical theatre writers that are combining all of the styles that we’re combining, which is really neat. I’ve been cutting my teeth doing live performance as a singer songwriter for a long time, so a lot of my influences, and what I’ve written historically is very Americana, blues influenced, jazz influenced. I grew up in Kentucky too, so it has a lot of that, but what José brought to the table was this more pop-punk style, and the fusion of the influences that he brought to the table, and what organically comes out of me is a really super fun unique combination.
J: Personally as a playwright and an actor it’s a mission for me to you know create the sort of work I would be interested in doing. As a Latinx actor I’m not interested in the sort of stereotypes that you see, I’m not interested in playing gangbangers, I’m not interested in playing lawn-care professionals. Not to say that those stories aren’t compelling, but I want to be able to create new ideas of what it means to be a Latinx millennial even.
Do you have a favorite song?
M: Oh my gosh, the songs that get stuck in my head over and over is “Here You Are.” I’ll be walking around my house trying to write music for this other show, and I’ll be like “Here you are…”that one really gets me. Also “Between the Covers.” That’s the newest song in the show, the one that the young woman Beatriz sings with Tía Sandra, and that’s the newest song we added because I felt that after we did the first table read with el Semillero most of the songs were for Andrés, the main character, or for him and his love interest Ted Deacon, or his ex Sam. Lots of songs for the male characters in the show.
“I saw the whole world beyond the barrio between the covers of my books. Adventures and journeys but because of you I also wanted to stay, be a part of my community and build it up and continue to make it my home.”
Tía Sandra and Beatriz are the beating heart of what holds them all together. I wanted more for them, and wanted to know, what if we had heard more from their voices? I’m excited to continue to develop those and hear more from them. That song was a powerful addition because it’s a story of this woman who has a shop in this gentrifying neighborhood, and it used to be her mom’s tailor shop and she holds on to it.
She’s like, “I opened a book shop because I love books and I saw the whole world beyond my world here and still I wanted to stay in this place.” Then we have this young woman whose life was positively impacted by that, by being able to go into this bookstore when she was younger and regardless of her very tempestuous story with her parents, was able to find a very stable solid home and community in this bookshop. This young woman echoes the sentiment, “I saw the whole world beyond the barrio between the covers of my books. Adventures and journeys but because of you I also wanted to stay, be a part of my community and build it up and continue to make it my home.”
This is essentially a Chicago story. You know José grew up in Chicago, and I’ve only been here a year, but we were able to tell a story that’s distinctly a Chicago story that a lot of people will be able to identify. Just watching this kind of unconventional family unfold, you know, their relationships holding them together. That’s my favorite song at the moment: the one that tugs on my heartstrings the most.
It was a very triumphant and joyful moment when we did the reading because days before, hours before I was still going through a crisis of the heart with some of the songs, and it was like okay it’s crunch time, and we’re going to bring it all together. It’s really powerful. That was the first time I’ve heard it all together, and I felt, you know as they say, this has legs.