Playwright Jason Loewith’s Gamble on ’Adding Machine’ Pays Off
Adding Machine: A Musical, which opens at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston on March 12, is the brainchild of Jason Loewith and Josh Schmidt, co-librettists, who took Elmer Rice's Expressionist drama (first performed in 1923) and transformed it into an award winning musical. Adding Machine is the little train that could: it opened in Chicago, made its way to the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, and to other venues nationally and internationally. Along the way, it has surpassed the initial dreams of its creators.
Loewith is clearly enjoying the ride. I caught up with him as he was driving on his way to direct a show in Baltimore - a series of three one-act plays about the workplace -- from his home in Washington, D.C. where he works as executive director of the National New Play Network.
"My partner introduced me to an opera by Kurt Weill called Street Scene, based on the same play by Elmer Rice," Loewith said. "He thought it would be fun to do it as a musical. It took me eight or nine years later to finally find a composer, Josh Schmidt, and we joined forces."
Rice, the playwright, who died in 1967, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1929 for Street Scene. He had a rocky career in the theater. He enjoyed modest successes, and left his mark as a writer who effectively chronicled the difficult economic realities of life in the slums and the upheavals felt by all during a time of distress in the United States. These themes, Loewith contends, are the keys to what makes Adding Machine: a Musical so compelling to modern audiences.
"It just seems that we are thematically connected to what Rice was exploring during his time in that, once again, we're going through the same rocky times today," Loewith said. "We all feel, very keenly, the economic distress and we are seeing the repercussions of an angry populace. The election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts is one example of this outcry of the selfish populace during a difficult economic climate. Those themes are in Adding Machine, too."
An antidote to the traditional musical
Adding Machine: a Musical tells the story of Mr. Zero, an accountant in a large corporation who becomes unhinged when he learns his boss plans on replacing him with a modern invention - an adding machine. With his world collapsing he kills his boss; is executed and in the afterlife is assigned to operate an adding machine. The 90-minute musical, like the play it is based on is dark, spare and haunting. Charles Isherwood in The New York Times summed it up as "nobody’s idea of a giddy, escapist good time. But its unsentimental vision is executed with a commitment that is bracingly tonic. And its bitter tang leaves you with the significant consolation of viewing our own seemingly ever-darkening world with a measure of equanimity."
"It really is an antidote to the traditional view of a musical," Loewith said. "There are a lot of people who are tired of musicals that are cheerful and shallow, like Pal Joey, and who just long for something with substance and mood."
The musical has also enjoyed a run in, of all places, Lisbon, Portugal. Loewith traveled to that production and was astonished by what he saw there.
"The Portuguese do not get to see productions of Western musical theater very often," he explained. "They have a tradition of opera, and musical hall productions and the influence of the Spanish music and theater that is performed there. But when ’Adding Machine’ arrived there, it blew their minds. They did some fabulous things with it. It was really off the wall, with an orgy scene that showed two sailors going at it and all sorts of other surprises."
In this country, in addition to the Boston premiere at Speak Easy Stage Company, the show will also be performed in Ohio and Florida.
"It’s wonderful for a writer/librettist like me to see his creation take on a life of its own," Loewith said. "Josh Schmidt and I feel very lucky to be enjoying this success during a time, according to a report written by the National Endowment of the Arts recently, when the amount of plays that are being produced and presented at theaters has actually doubled, but the number of theatergoers that need to support these productions have actually diminished. It’s thrilling to have the play done in Boston at SpeakEasy, which has a dedicated subscriber base because that’s what’s needed nationally in order to turn the dismal NEA report around on its heels."
In addition to his administrative work for the National New Play Network in Washington, his directorial engagement in Baltimore and his work overseeing the production of Adding Machine: a Musical nationally, Loewith is also writing a new play that will open in Chicago in April. He’s actively exploring other projects and commissions. He is endowed with a creative spirit successfully leaps back and forth from project to project. It all comes together for him because he is undaunted by multi-tasking, and remains singularly focused on the task at hand.
And right now, that singular focus is to safely navigate the drive along the Baltimore-Washington parkway and to arrive ready to assume his directing role, remaining, at all times, the skipper of his own creative vessel.
Adding Machine: a Musical runs from March 12 to April 10, 2010 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information visit the SpeakEasy Stage website. Also co-librettists Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt will be making separate appearances at after performance talk back events. Loewith appears the 3pm show on Sunday 3/14 and Joshua Schmidt after the 3pm show on Sunday 3/21.