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Something’s Growing…. Chatting with Juliet Mazer-Schmidt & Jonathan Wagner about the making of Sarah and the Seed

By Samara Finkle

Features

You may have seen him in School of Rock and you may have worked with her on a show! Together they joined forces to become a power couple and a musical writing team!  We had the opportunity to speak with Juliet Mazer-Schmidt and Jonathan Wagner this week about their new musical, Sarah and the Seed, based on the comic by Ryan Andrews. 

What inspired you to write a musical based on a comic?

Juliet: Comic-to-musical adaptation was never a goal of mine, in and of itself – 

Jon: Same.

Juliet: I love both mediums, but when I read comics I’m not looking for the characters to sing.   

That said, when Jon first showed me Sarah and the Seed [back in February 2015], and mentioned that he saw a musical in it, I realized I did, too – immediately, particularly for the Finale: the panels…danced.

Jon: There are a LOT of fascinating stories out there, fiction and non, but not all of them sing. This had music jumping off the page for me.  

Juliet: Totally. And beyond music and choreography, we saw amazing opportunities for set and costume effects — growing a tree on-stage, for one; magic, projection, puppetry. But we could also see stunning, stripped-down, budget-friendly productions featuring Ensembles of all ages and sizes — there’s definitely a version of the show with a Wicked budget and one with a Fantasticks budget.

Jon: What really drew me to Sarah and the Seed was its simplicity. My last full-musical score was a very dense, historical piece where my collaborator and I were constantly stripping away very cool details from the source material — because the show was running 5+ hours. Sarah and the Seed is just the opposite. 

It’s a tiny story that required building a full, three-dimensional world behind the moments shown in the original comic. And more importantly, what context do we need to add so that these beautiful emotional beats Ryan [Andrews, creator of the comic] gave us feel earned and cathartic? I mean, the “Empty” sequence…that can’t come out of nowhere.

Juliet:  From a storytelling perspective, [what we call] the “Empty” sequence served as my “North Star,” so to speak, for creating a stage adaptation: it’s this super-quick flashback to a young, newlywed Sarah, seated cross-legged in the shadows, devastated, Aaron standing in the doorway behind her — followed by a multi-decade plot jump, Sarah having grown old, happily, alongside the same spouse. We had to connect those panels thoughtfully.

Jon: In a comic, your mind will make the jump, but in a two-act musical, based on a single multi-decade relationship, you can’t just say: “And then they got over it.”

Juliet: Yeah, we need to know how Sarah and Aaron rise from that darkness so that the miracle at the comic’s core can even come to pass. I love the idea that surviving grief can lead – decades later – to dreams being fulfilled from the most unlikely circumstances. 

And to circle back on the comic-to-musical adaptation, generally, another definite point of inspiration on my part: when I moved to New York to join Jon [who was performing in School of Rock on Broadway], I wound up working with the General and Company Management Teams of [comic-to-musical Tony Winner] Fun Home, which was winding down its First National Tour at the time. That experience made the “dream” to adapt Sarah and the Seed start to feel like an actually-achievable goal. 

So, Jon and I made a lot of lists, made a lot of calls, (drank a lot of coffee), and here we are.

Jon: There have been a lot of lists…

I know both of you have had careers in different areas of the industry, can you talk about how that helped you when you were putting this musical together?

Jon: Fortunately, we have very complementary skill sets: I worked as a music director and sound designer with The Second City for 15 years, which helped a lot with the music prep and assembling a demo. 

Juliet: Jon worked some straight up wizardry in mixing that demo. We had 20 voices beyond our own, recorded across the country, coming from different rooms, with different mics — I was the only other person who heard the entire evolution from individual stems, coming in one-at-a-time, to the finished product. I remain in awe…

Jon: OK, but you know how to draft and negotiate a contract.

Juliet: Ha! Fair. 

I am incredibly fortunate to come to the table as an attorney — and also a former nonprofit theater fundraiser, with general and company management in a commercial setting, plus experiences in casting, stage management — I was blessed to serve as a production assistant alongside some true Broadway legends and music icons; most recently I served the theater as an agent. — But I started out as a theatre kid, performing in musicals, dance competitions, choirs…

Jon: We managed to cover a lot of bases between the two of us.  

Juliet: What’s been most helpful, all these years and experiences later, is coming to understand so many of the diverse, valid – sometimes conflicting – points of view in theater-making. I’ve become so much more sensitive to the astonishing amount of labor — and money — involved. With Sarah and the Seed, I knew coming in just how MUCH would lie ahead — which keeps me humble, always.

Jon: Doing a lot of the early admin work ourselves, we got to keep Sarah and the Seed  “in-house” a bit longer: the show got to incubate with no outside pressure. So the version we debuted [at the Jerry Orbach Theater on October 7, 2019] was our show: if it worked, we knew our show was working; and if it didn’t work, we knew who to blame. 

Juliet: And, oh, what a luxury to go through the first several dozen script and score revisions in-house — literally! We are both well-aware that is not often the situation writers face… 

Of course, that luxury of privacy comes with a corresponding challenge, which is the reality that those early admin hires are typically a new musical’s first layer of “publicity.”

Jon: That’s the double-edged sword: you keep creative control and save money, but since no one else is working on it, no one else is talking about it.

 Have there been any challenges with writing this musical together being that you two are a couple as well?

Jon: Whatever Juliet says is correct.

Juliet: HA! 

We were collaborating on Sarah and the Seed before we were a couple: when we met, Jon was my music director at The Second City — both of us were involved with musical improv in Chicago. Honestly, the bulk of our early years brainstorming [SATS] came while living in separate cities, each of us working jobs totally unrelated to writing a musical. 

Jon: I’ve written songs with hundreds of collaborators, and this is actually the first time I’ve ever worked on something like this with a significant other. I think it’s been an advantage.

Juliet: Especially mid-pandemic, I think being quarantined with Jon benefits the project: unlike most collaborators right now, we share a space, so we can work on any schedule we want – and Jon makes excellent coffee.  

Jon: I do. Also, when you are working with your significant other on a project, it’s easier to justify dedicating your very limited, shared space to that project.

Juliet: Yeah, Sarah and the Seed’s storyboard takes up a whole wall in our home… I consider our personal shorthand a tremendous timesaver — and we get to celebrate our wins together, something I never take for granted.

What do you want people to know about Sarah and the Seed?

Juliet: We made it for everyone: all are welcome in this world. Suspend disbelief, lean into the possibility of magic, and I sincerely believe you’ll like it.

Jon: You’ll REALLY like it!

Juliet: If you don’t know the comic, it’s a lovely 5-minute read by the brilliant Ryan Andrews. [available online HERE.] 

Jon: It was Eisner-nominated — which is like the comic world’s Tony Award.

Juliet: Overture to Finale, our 2020 Homegrown Holiday Demo runs 66 minutes and it’s available as a YouTube playlist. (Individual tracks are also up on 10glo!) Thanks to Ryan’s permission and blessing, we are thrilled to showcase the songs alongside panels from the comic.

Jon: As we’ve said, we expanded the Sarah-Verse, so the demo offers a nice sort of music video that goes through the score using excerpts of the script and comic to help you “see” the show as we see it.

Juliet: Also, our cast is AMAZING, and we’d love for you to hear their beautiful voices! …Especially any readers who heard our early demos.

Jon: Things sound much… fuller now.

Juliet: We are profoundly grateful to our talented theater families — Broadway to Northwestern to Second City to Grosse Pointe Children’s Theater — who helped bring this demo to life. It truly takes a village. 

Jon: So many awesome people helped out. Give it a listen. We REALLY think you’ll like it!

Juliet: We do. Oh! And we’ve created Instagram and Twitters accounts (@SarahAndTheSeed)! Please stay tuned and stay in touch: we’d love to hear from you — yes, YOU!

You released your demos late last year, what’s next for Sarah and the Seed?

Juliet: Growing the right Team, building thoughtful budgets, making plans for our next “room” – in the city — or country — that makes the most sense. 

Rapid Fire:

Proudest moment?

Juliet:…Everything pre-pandemic feels like a distant memory right now… so I’ll go with my unlikely mid-quarantine return to pointe shoes [thanks to Tiler Peck/#turnitoutwithTiler!]:

Jon: Other than the demo, my quarantine-complishment is I have gotten pretty good at baking this year.

Juliet: I can vouch — not even Friedman’s offers gluten-free matzo ball soup, and Jon has made it happen IN MY OWN HOME. Dreams come true.

Favorite condiment?

Juliet: Kroger* Apple Butter is my portal back to childhood.

*(Eden brand, made with Michigan apples and NYC-available, is a solid standby.)

Jon: Chipotle Garlic BBQ Blend from The Spice House in Chicago. It’s my go-to spice.

Juliet: We ship in (what-would-be) felony levels of product from Spice House.

Current Netflix Binge?

Jon: Ted Lasso.  Really fun show.

Juliet: Also, we’ve stumbled into a streaming channel that plays only old American Gladiators episodes and I AM IN HEAVEN. — And, yes, I realize neither of these are Netflix.

Personal Motto?

Jon: I think Michelle McNamara had it right: “It’s chaos; be kind.”

Juliet: Yes — that. 

I suppose mine’s — also — now: “Horse Might Sing” [title of another project I’m currently developing…]. 


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