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Musical Writing Team Matt Vinson & Matte O’Brien Bring Anne of Green Gables to the Stage

Updated: Apr 3

The challenges and joys of adapting a classic story into a contemporary musical.

Writing a musical is a long process. And once writers have finished that last page, well, that’s really only the beginning of their journey. By the time actors comes along to audition for it. There have usually been years of drafts, workshops, and revisions. And a year ago today, I was part of the opening cast for a new musical adaptation of Anne of Green Gables being produced at Goodspeed in Connecticut. The two writers joined me on my podcast during that run to talk about their new musical:

Matte O’Brien - Lyricist and book writer for Anne Green Gables, originally from upstate New York, just outside of Albany and has lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for the last 15+ years. Matt Vincent - Composer of Anne of Green Gables, originally from Mobile, Alabama and now living in New York City.

In our conversation, Matt and Matte focus on the many years it has taken for Anne of Green Gables to get to this point at Goodspeed and how they’re preparing for its potential future. They share stories of its humble beginnings, how they’re learning to take and not take feedback from others, and what influence actors have on the rewriting and editing process. They even talk about a time when collaboration with producers took a turn for the worst.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app:

Full Episode with Matt Vinson & Matte O'Brien

Why I’ll Never Make It - August 1, 2022

Final Five Questions with Matt & Matte

Why I’ll Never Make It - August 8, 2022


(The following transcript has been edited only slightly for clarity.)

Patrick Oliver Jones: Welcome, Matt and Matte. It is so great to have both of you here. Matt Vinson: Thanks, Patrick. Matte O’Brien: Hi. Nice to be here. Patrick: Thank you so much. We’ve been working together for a few weeks now, but we first met in the auditions, which were a few months ago. And I imagine that you’re isolated, you’re writing, you’re together, but then you kind of start to bring this out and the auditions are really your first chance to see it on people. And so what is that process like when you first start hearing this music in the voices of other people? Matt: Absolutely. And I think that’s really a very important part of the process for the music. I think it’s being able to not only hear the range of the performer but also being able to start to hear sort of the emotional phrasing and sort of try it on for size with the various performers. And so I think that just hearing the song gives me a sense of how I can imagine it on stage. Matte: Yeah. And I think there’s also the element of the characters living in your head for so long. And then all of a sudden I feel like each time someone comes into the room, I remember a mentor of mine saying, you’ll see the character, you’ll see the character walk into the room, so don’t panic and you’ll know. And there is something about that. It’s not that it’s always perfect. And not that everyone, and we’re not always even on the same page with every actor that comes in, but you do kind of start to recognize the characters coming into the room and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I can see him or I can see her stepping into this and then getting to play with them on.” It is really, really cool. Patrick: The first story that you wanted to talk about goes with the beginning and how the two of you came to this classic story of Anne of Green Gables and the journey of bringing it to the stage. And from what I understand, it began with one song, right? Matte: Yeah. So we were looking for something we could adapt. And I had grown up with the Anne of Green Gable stories. My mother was a huge fan of them. And we had been looking at a ton of different material reading, just a ton of stuff. And I thought, oh, Anne’s so imaginative. I think she could work on stage and had been tried on stage in different plays and musicals before, but none that had been on Broadway. So we thought it was fairground to try for it. And I wrote a lyric that’s still in the show called, “Oh My Diana.” And it is pretty much what you hear in the show right now, was pretty much the original lyric. And I sent it to Matt and I think we got in the room or did you write it? Matt: Actually we wrote it in the room, it was right before you were about to go off to grad school for a couple of years. And so we were just tying things up and you had the lyric and we said, “Let’s just write one more before you go.”

Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival 2018

Patrick: So in that interim period, was it still in there or it was just kind of a one-off and you put it aside? Matte: Yeah. Well, what’s funny that I was thinking of the other day — so I went to grad school at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. And I did a lot of my master’s work at the globe in the Royal Shakespeare company. And it’s really funny that I didn’t really attribute. There’s a ton of Shakespeare in the show. There are a ton of references to Shakespeare and stuff in the show, which are not necessarily in the L.M. Montgomery writing that’s kind of been imposed on the piece of it. And I was thinking that’s really funny. And I did write a little bit more. I was like, oh, this could kind of work for Anne. I was just playing over there, not even really I think sending a ton to Matt. And then when I came back, I had a bunch of material and I was like, okay, let’s play with this. And for other shows too, but this one sort of started to step forward. Matt: Well, I’ll say that with that song “Oh, My Diana” there was a period where we just — because you were away, we said, “I’m not sure if we’re going to write together.” We weren’t sure what the next step would be, but that melody haunted me through that time. It just wouldn’t go away. And so, having written that song; I just knew that there was something more there, and so just being able to then come back to it. Matte: We met back up when we came back to the city and then I think it just was like, “Oh, let’s try another thing. Let’s try another thing.” And then one thing led to another. Patrick: Was it an easy fit? Was it like just an instant kind of spark chemistry between the two of you, or did it take a little while for you to come together? Matte: I’ll field this one. No, it was awful. We’re incredibly different people, have very, very different approaches in what we need and what sets us off and what we expect and how we operate. And we probably could have written seven or eight musicals by now but we spent so much time fighting with each other. Artistic fights. My poor roommates, it was awful. They could write awful books about the meltdowns in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Matt: Well, I think something what is good about what we do today is we’re really good editors. I think that we just value that sort of process of keeping on refining things after we hear them from the actors or just have some time with it ourselves. But in the beginning, that editing process, I think Matte used to say, “Matt, I feel like you played the right melody the first time,” but then I would try out 10 other ones that were horrible before I felt comfortable to say, “Okay, the first one was the right one.” And so I think we’ve both continued to edit well, but I think we’re better at identifying the first one when we feel it’s right.

Early production artwork from 2015

Matte: Yeah. And I also think that the fighting was able to kind of melt our processes better. And I know preemptively now what I can go to Matt about, what I shouldn’t go to Matt about when I should approach something in vice versa. And I think we made a pact several years ago about, I’m going to be looking out for him in a process and he’ll be looking out for me and we know what we need in those things. And so when other people come in and we start to work, we’re very protective of like, you shouldn’t involve Matt in this at this moment or vice versa and that’s really, really where everything changed for us. Patrick: And so it seems like you both found a way to stay in your own lane, but still on the same road. Matte: Totally.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I like to have all of the variables and have all the information and all the different choices sort of presented to me. And then I sort of try them on within my head. I think Matte works a different way. Matte: I want to know nothing. I don’t want any opinions. I don’t want to think about it. I want to follow my gut, but we’ve gotten to a good place I think navigating what he needs and what I need. And the one problem that we have right now, actually, not problem, but we tend to write really quickly and throw things out very quickly and are not afraid to be like, that’s not working cut it, we can put something else in there. I think for a while, when we were younger, it felt like, oh, if we cut this, it’s like a finite resource or something. And now it feels much more like we know we can go into that room and write something else, something better, more precise or worse, but something new and try something else. And it’s not quite as scary to ditch it.

L.M. Montgomery’s series of Anne novels began publishing in 1908.

Patrick: So when it comes to Anne of Green Gables, as you said, it’s a beloved story. It’s been around for more than a hundred years now. And so was there a sense of responsibility in approaching this kind of story for a musical treatment? Matte: Yeah. And the hardest part, it’s classic and you want to honor that. And we knew in any adaptation that we did of someone else’s work. Being writers, you have a certain respect, you don’t want to mess up someone else’s thing. You want to treat it with care. And there was that aspect, but I think what was the hardest aspect of the Anne of Green Gables starting point was I felt like I could see how Matt and I could do it. And I didn’t see it being Oklahoma. I didn’t see it being this pastoral thing right from the very beginning and the real struggle and challenge was even with Matt and I getting on the same page about where we were aiming for, where was the sweet spot that we could bring something new to, it was defining that tone, that attack, the style of the piece, and then translating that to every collaborator and producer and artistic director and stuff that we’ve had to have meetings with all this time to say like, oh no, it’s sort of this and not that. And only recently have we really been able to have, I think, a great team together that understands where we’re heading and aiming, stylistically, don’t you agree? Matt: Yeah, I agree. I think that with Anne in particular, the character of Anne has the depth of emotion and also just has the comedy. And my experience of being in the room with Matte is that Matte is very entertaining. And the comedy stuff. I mean, just in terms of, I laugh at things that you say and the lyrics you write. And so I knew that part would be there. And I also know that we can write things that have the depth of emotion. And so I felt that it was the right match for Anne in particular. Patrick: Was there a sense of, as you said you were trying to explain it because if I was explaining it, I could draw from many different musicals, a spring awakening here, a little bridges of Madison county. I would have these references, but obviously, you were creating something new. So did you draw from other resources like that? What was that process? Matte: It’s funny. We obviously are, even the musicals you mentioned are some of our favorites. Yeah, we have all that context in the sense of musical theater, but it’s really funny. I think that when we start to work on a piece, we tend not to start with a musical language that’s based in theater. It tends to be Brandi Carlile, The Indigo Girls and not speaking specific to this piece. But in the past, the artist Mika was a big influence at certain points, and things that we pulled from kind of started the conversation with the aesthetic that we were going for — in the harmonies and in the way that the character sounded and spoke and knowing that we both come from the musical theater already. And that’s sort of just a huge influence on us anyway. That just is always going to be seeping in there and kind of filling in the cracks. Matt: And we have an eclectic sensibility. Part of the aesthetic that we started even before Anne was sort of this collage idea of bringing together all these various shards of glass, musical glass in some way. There’s so much in Anne that is personal to me. I mean, I grew up in the South, I’m a gay man. I grew up in the church. So like a lot of church music. There’s a history there that’s personal to me. So that comes in certain moments. Other moments, there’s this effervescent quality to it that I’ve experienced that give me joy. And so that’s just sort of how I sort of think about it from an emotional place that I think seeps into the music. Patrick: Now, Matte you have written plays, just straight plays by yourself. What made you want to make this a musical rather than turn Anne into another play? Matte: It’s had adaptations that have been in definitely series, television series and things that have been done that have been very successful over the years. I haven’t seen all of them, but I know that some of them have even cult followings. And I thought that the only angle to take with it, new and fresh that we could bring to it, was something that hadn’t been achieved on a mass scale. And I thought, okay, it hasn’t had this really huge musical commercial Broadway thing going on. And I thought we had an angle of how to go down that avenue so that’s where I look to it. And also the plays that I’ve written, everything. I’m not crazy about adapting things so much in a play world. They’ve all been original pieces that have been inspired by different political topics or things like that, but not so much adapting another piece.

The 1985 Canadian made-for-television drama film, which became the first in a series of four films starring Megan Follows in the title role of Anne Shirley. Produced and directed by Kevin Sullivan for the CBC.

Patrick: So you had mentioned other adaptations and one of the most famous is the TV movie series from the 1980s produced by Kevin Sullivan, starring Megan Follows. And I’m curious if you’re both familiar with that and did that influence where you went with this or how you composed this particular adaptation? Matte: I know that it exists, I’ve never seen it. And I know it has a huge following and I actually cannot wait to someday sit down and watch it all because I’ve only heard the most amazing things and I know Colin Dewhurst is in it, which I just adore. But one of the things that when we started adapting it, the first reading we ever did of it was four hours long because I wanted to make sure we were really working out of the source material. So I wrote no book about it. And we just essentially 90% at least, 95% of the dialogue that I used were just directly mined from the Green Gables book to make sure we were really grounded in that so that it wasn’t pulling from any other adaptation or anything. And then slowly I’ve punched it up and removed things and edited. So that’s really where it stays grounded. Eventually I would love to when we have our version up and out there and stuff, I would love to see all of them, but not until that’s done. Matt: And a lot of the original text is very flowery in a way and very verbose. And I think that first reading was very long because of that. But now you’ve put some zingers in there. I think like there’s a little Matte O’Brien sort of sitcom punch to it. Yeah, I think it’s good. Matte: I think the thing that it needs to feel fresh to a modern audience, I think some of the romantic language and sugary stuff needs to be balanced with the acid. And I think it’s about just bringing that out, and it’s there. It’s actually there in the writing in a lot of places, but you’ve just gotta choose wisely what scenes you’re doing and what things, and then punch them up a bit. Patrick: Well, getting to the second story that you wanted to talk about, is the fact that you had to bring on producers, and collaborators onto the project. Obviously, it wasn’t just the Matt and Matte show anymore. Now you had to bring other people on and specifically working around their own preconceived notions of this original work. What were some of the pushback or disagreements and differences you had in those opinions? Matt: Well, several times throughout the long process that it’s been, we have introduced the idea, the title Anne of Green Gables, and people, I think gravitate towards it and thinking, “oh, that’s wonderful. Our audience will really love that.” There’s this, little house on the Prairie kind of aesthetic that I think comes to mind. We’ve even seen that reflected on some initial visuals and posters that have been mocked up for various productions. And I think that right away, we knew that we had a different vision in mind for the aesthetic and the branding because it is so important that it’s a contemporary classic. And so right away, the first thing you see and the first thing you hear should reflect that. Matte: I totally agree. And it’s been a learning curve for us and for the people that we’ve worked with on the project. Luckily, we had Justin Nichols, who we'd collaborated with before as a producer on a different piece. And so we were able to sort of figure out with him how to point people in the right direction, the right vision that we are going toward. And then we’ve had Eric Cornell and Jack Sennott and other producers join in who have been wonderful at also, they kind of got it and saw the potential there, and they’ve helped translate it. When we came out to Goodspeed, we had meetings with them and Donna Lynn saw it when he was at the Finger Lakes. And it’s just been a process of sort of getting a united vision. And also being open to how that vision is reinterpreted for specific audiences and to speak to people so that they feel like, oh, this show is for me. And that’s a whole process in itself.

Juliette Redden as Anne Shirley sings to DC Anderson as Matthew Cuthbert with the dancing ensemble behind her.
Juliette Redden and DC Anderson with the ensemble of Goodspeed’s Anne of Green Gables.

Patrick: Now as an actor, I certainly understand the role of the director, the choreographer, music director. I certainly know their input and how they can steer things. And producers on their end, they’re certainly known for their money, but how do they interact creatively with a piece, and specifically with the producers that you mentioned. How have they interacted, not just on a financial business end, but then creatively? Matt: Well, Justin Nichols, who’s one of the lead producers, he believed in us for the project that we had beforehand. I think he was in college still when he first saw a reading up there and started listening to a bootleg recording and called us and said, “Hey, I just like your stuff.” So we just have always embraced that friendship and collaboration through the years. But he really understands what we’re aiming for. And he is often our first sounding board whenever we’re making a change or a new song. He’s also able to come to us in certain moments and say, “Hey, I think you need to listen to this feedback. You need to maybe think about cutting this moment or that moment.” And so we really value having somebody we trust and as the team is growing, we’re broadening that circle of trust as well. Matte: Even this week, we met with Eric Cornell who was one of the other producers who’s early on to the project and his partner, Jack. And they had feedback. The nice thing about this team right up to Donna Lynn and the producers here at Goodspeed, they’ve been really good about not overwhelming us, because I think the problem with writing for me, like I said before, it’s hard for me if I have too many voices coming at me and too many opinions coming at me for me to receive information and receive the show on my own terms and say, “This is what I think needs to change.” Or that’s, like follow my instincts. If I have too many echos in the back of my head of a note that I got here and this one, they’ve been really good at coming together, giving very concise, specific feedback and then letting us go away and kind of process that and figure out how to address things. We just know the show so well that sometimes you have blind spots, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a ghost from a previous adaptation.” That was from another reading and that’s not there anymore. And that needs to be removed to make it clearer here, to connect these dots and having eyes like that can be a real benefit if it’s done in the right way. And luckily right now with these producers, they’ve been so great at facilitating that process.

Anne of Green Gables cast and creative team hold their first read-thru of the script in June 2022.

Patrick: And what’s so interesting is that it’s the two of you and then you start adding these other people and eventually the two of you become a minority when it comes to the voices in the room. How do you stand up for yourself? Matt: Speak louder. (laughing) Matte: It’s funny. You kind of hand your baby over to all these people, whether that’s producers and directors and choreographers, and you really have to trust the people that you’re collaborating with you. And you have to trust the feedback loop. They’re interpretive artists. We’re generative artists. We generate this material, but we have to have people interpreting it. Right down to actors and stuff. And sometimes you have a preconceived notion. That line. They’re not saying that line is right. Or that dance move is not right or whatever it is. We all have those preconceived notions when we’re creating something. But oftentimes if you trust the team and you trust the people that you’re working with and you trust their process and how they work, you’ll find that they can scratch the itches that you’re looking to have, the things that you wanted address and the original ideas, and also elevate them in a way that you hadn’t anticipated it going into this place or that place, or that moment landed. My favorite thing ever, I always say, is when an actor gets a laugh or tears out of something that was totally surprising to me. And it happens a lot. And those are the best moments, not when they execute the moment that I know is going to get the laugh Matt: We want to make sure that there are no mysteries. I mean, there are certain just technical things that we conceive when we initially were in the room together. Some of those writing sessions were 10 years ago. And so we just want to make sure that there’s not ever a moment in the room where there’s a mystery to be solved because we’re there to support the process as well, as opposed to a piece where the writers are not part of the process or someone who’s no longer around and it’s a two-way street because I think again we respond well on the spot, hearing it reflected back for the performers and make edits on that basis as well. So we really value being in the room for that feedback loop.

Patrick: With Anne of Green Gables, was there a moment where someone, whether the producers or director, came to you and said, “Okay, this isn’t working or this has to change.” And you didn’t agree with them, but you changed it anyway and may have come around and like, oh, I guess that was better? Matte: I had an experience early on when I came out of college and one of the first shows I wrote, I’m not going to mention the show, but it was a show that got a lot of heat really quickly and blew up in this big way. And there were a lot of wonderful producers attached to it. And there were a lot of more challenging producers attached to it. And it became an unproductive feedback loop and there were changes going in that I wasn’t aware of, or that I wasn’t in control of. And the show grew into something that I didn’t even recognize by the time it was going up in the second production of it. And I was so disappointed by that and it was heartbreaking and that’s why I left New York and went back to get a master’s because I couldn’t face creating anymore really. And so in this process, I think it’s been a process of setting boundaries and articulating needs. And everyone that’s been attached to this production, on the producing end and the creative end is aware of that, Jenn always says “PTSD from that production.” And I will acknowledge that I’ve heard something, I’ve heard that note and I appreciate the note. I really genuinely, even if I don’t agree with it yet, I do appreciate getting it. And then I need to process it. And sometimes we had a meeting with Eric the other night and he gave a couple of notes that I was like, “oh yes, of course, that absolutely should be in there.” And they were great, brilliant, really smart notes. And there were other things that I was like, I need to think about that note. It might be the right note. I just need time to come to it and figure out where it’s coming from and how it needs to be incorporated and what’s the best, most artistic way it needs to be incorporated, or if that note needs to be addressed in another way through direction or choreography or whatever it might be. Matt: And for the music. I mean, there’s a humility that I try to bring to the process, but it takes some time. Meaning we have a whole music department that is thinking about all the different technical elements, the tempos, the cues, all these things that go into making everything work well. And it takes me some time. Sometimes I kind of joke and say, “Well, after we’ve had four weeks of rehearsal, now I’m saying, okay you were right four weeks ago.” And so acknowledging that’s important, but also just as part of my process, initially hearing things as you’ve conceded them, but then also having that humility to be able to take a step back, hear it, reflect it back and then say, you know what, actually you were right. And then we make the show better. Patrick: And I think I can say this now we’re still in previews. Things are changing. So far, one major musical number was cut. What was the process of taking out a musical number that we had rehearsed, that we had choreographed, that was in it and then we decide to, okay, let’s cut it? Was it time? Was it storytelling, many things? Matte: It’s a number called “The Asylum.” That was one of the first numbers we wrote. It was more of a proof-of-concept number when we started writing it. We were trying to figure out how Anne’s imagination worked and how the ensemble worked with her and stuff. And I’ve always really loved the number. And I love the way that it’s staged with Jen [Jancuska], our choreographer, and Jenn Thompson, the director, and the cast was executing it beautifully. Almost too beautifully because it made me a little shaky about cutting it. But when we did it at the Finger Lakes, the first production we ever did of this, it was the one thing that I didn’t cut from the Finger Lakes that I sort of had. I had said to Matt, “I think we’re staying a little too long with Anne in this kind of not only manic energy, but she’s got a very like high energy at the top of the show.”

And I felt like after she sings this big song “Waiting” that’s very high energy, and then she goes right into “The Asylum” and I felt like it was staying in one type of energy too long. But we liked the numbers so much, and we liked what Jen [Jancuska] did with it so much, and Jenn Thompson did with it so much, that we wanted to keep it. And then as soon as we did the first run-through of that section, I turned to the producers and I was like my gut was right. And unfortunately that work and everything has to go, but it’s all in service of the show, even though I still adore that number.

Ensemble in rehearsals for “The Asylum” at Goodspeed.

Matt: I remember it was like, I think October of 2014, we did our first session with Jen [Jancuska]. And I remember being in the rehearsal room and with her company The BringAbout, and we were reading through — I think two or three songs and sight-reading. The first time actually, I think Matte and I had said, “We’re not sure if we’re going to do this Anne of Green Gables.” It was sort of like the last hope of it. And then in that session things were going okay. But then we sang the asylum and I was at the piano and Jen was on the other side of the room. I remember looking over at her face the first time she heard the vocals come on that bridge, “There were dragons in the cellar” and I saw this spark and her eyes lit up. And I sense that was the moment when she thought, “Okay, I can do this piece.” And in some ways, that session actually saved Matte and my writing partnership. And so there was like a personal connection I had to do the song itself. So I think that’s probably why we held onto it for so long, but being able to just at least, again take a step back, receive what we’re seeing in the show. At the moment it was the right decision for the show, but it was a tough one. Patrick: What is it that keeps you going for so many years on one project, that you don’t get tired of it or that you’re like, “Is this ever going to be something?” How do you keep going through that? Matt: It’s kind of crazy. I was talking to Justin Nichols, I think a couple weeks ago about this. I mean, it’s not your full time job because you have a job to pay the rent and all that stuff. But there’s not a day that goes by that you’re not thinking in some ways about some moment on this show. And it’s not the most efficient process because you’re thinking about just kind of, okay, “Let me double check, that’s how that moment feeling for me today and that’s over the course of years” but I do think that there’s a cumulative muscle memory you build through that. So now when we’re with this production, I think we’re able to make decisions even more quickly because we have that shared experience and that repetitions of any particular task or skill, a certain number of times you can become an expert. I think it applies here. It’s not about us being necessarily experts at being writers or composers, but I think we’re definitely experts on Anne of Green Gable a new musical, because that’s been our life for the last decade or so. Patrick: And certainly one of the things that have come up, debates that have happened over the decades is the idea and most notably by this professor from the Royal military college in Kingston, Ontario, Laura Robinson, and she brought up the idea this underlying center. And it’s been talked about even before her, but she centered it around this underlying current of lesbianism that’s within the story. And was that a thought, was that a voice, was that one of the things you wanted to address in your particular production? Matt: Yeah, I read that very early on when we were starting to write it and I thought it was super interesting. As soon as I read it, I was like, “oh, I wonder if that’s why I gravitated toward these books even before I wasn’t in my own sexual maturity or whatever.” I mean, I was really little when I was reading these books, but I do think that. I was unpopular and I was dorky and I was bookish and I was hot tempered and imaginative and overly opinionated, all those things. And so Anne really just was like a character I really related to, but then I do think that there’s this interesting thing that L.M. Montgomery does with love in this story.

L.M. Montgomery (1874 — 1942)

Most classic novels like that have this really heteronormative love story at the center of them. And for certain Gilbert and Anne, the two leads of the show, over the course of her entire set of books, they get married and there’s no spoiler alerts, but there’s also these really intimate friendships and, or very romantic kind of friendships between the women in the books, in our show, it’s Anne and Diana and I was really like intrigued by those love stories. She doesn’t kind of put one form of love above another in the stories. It’s not like romantic love wins and friendship love is not as good. And that’s what we’ve always kind of said as we were writing this, I don’t know what L.M. Montgomery intended or not. And I actually think that the case for the lesbianism in not only this work, but in her own life is really, really intriguing and interesting. I don’t think we’ll probably ever get a real answer to it. But the thing that was more fascinating to me was how we could honor both interpretations of that. I see what I see in the show and what I think we have put our thumb on that scale of how we interpret the show. But I think we didn’t want to say that if you view them as a platonic friendship, a deep platonic friendship between Anne and Diana, that that was invalid, or if you viewed it as there was more of a romance there that was unrequited love or whatever that was that that was invalid. We wanted to say that either of those interpretations is right, depending on how you come to it because in the books she doesn’t place those loves, those two types of love, whatever love that was between those two people.

Illustration of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, from the first edition of Anne of Green Gables (1908).

L.M. Montgomery doesn’t put that one above another. It’s not better if they were romantic or better if they were friends. I actually think the greatest love story in the show is between Matthew and Marilla, who are brother and sister. That’s clearly a platonic relationship, but they are the definition of kindred spirits. So we wanted to allow there to be enough gray that people could resonate the way that the books have. And I think that’s actually probably why unknowingly the books have lasted and had such a profound effect all these years later. Matte: And to me, it’s, it’s so interesting how different perspectives, how many of those there are related to the story. One of the times that I went up to Prince Edward Island, and I stayed in an Airbnb in Cavendish. My host, she was actually from a family who lived there. For the generation, I think her mother had sewn L.M. Montgomery’s wedding gown. So she was telling me all of these, the sewing machine was in the room. So all these sort of stories about it. She actually drove me around that around the island and gave me that real sort of locals tour. And as she was doing that, she was telling me all these stories, Mod I think she went by. She always had so many boyfriends. And so just hearing all these stories that just had been told and told and told and then you read her letters, you get a very different impression. Matt: It’s sort of an unanswerable question. And I think that is what makes things exciting in literature. And I love living in the gray and that’s I think what we’re trying to do with Anne as much as we can. Patrick: Well, it’s interesting that that has been something that has come up, not just in literature, in theater, but in society in general where we’re seeing historical figures, pieces, and works and now applying a very contemporary lens to it. And there’s something to be said for, even though it was written 100, 200 years ago, we’re going to see it, read it, how we are now. We can’t live back then, they can’t live here. But I think it’s interesting you talk about this gray area so that you’re opening it up to either interpretation, whether someone wants to have a traditional approach to it, or a very like modernistic open-ended kind of approach to it. Is that so that there is no question answered per se. Matte: I really think what we’re doing is honoring the books as they are. I mean, I think that really you can read those books if you go back and read them right now, and there’s nothing there that isn’t coming directly from those books. A lot of the quotes that would be the most LGBTQ+IA driven are actually lifted directly from the books in verbatim. And obviously I’ve had a hand in choosing what is in there and what isn’t in there, and I could have chosen different quotes and things. So I actually would say that all we’ve really done is sort of honored what L.M. Montgomery put there. And they’re not my original characters. I don’t know what was really behind those questions. But I do think what resonates with me is that I think in society, especially nowadays, if you’re not romantically coupled, or if you’re single, there’s sort of a stigma still crazily to that kind of thing. And what I love about this and the original works is that they deal with that stigma. Marilla deals with that stigma. Matthew deals with that stigma. But when you see the full story of the books, I think what Montgomery is ultimately saying is that you can have this community and home is built by everything and everyone around you. And it’s not, if Gilbert and Anne don’t end up together, or if Anne and Diana don’t end up together, whatever your interpretation is, that’s alright, because you can build a community of love and a very full life in spite of having a romantic partner and not having a romantic partner. And that to me is really what I think we tried to honor in the books and let people take what they will from there.

Juliette Redden (Anne Shirley) • Sharon Catherine Brown (Marilla Cuthbert) • D.C. Anderson (Matthew Cuthbert)

Patrick: Well that gets us to the third story that you wanted to bring up. And this deals with more of the process of tailoring, the dialogue, the music, and fitting the pieces onto the various performers that you’ve worked with throughout this writing process. And do you ever find yourself looking for actors who fit the story like that, or actors that come in and they kind of expand it in a new way, and that’s who you go with instead, is there a criteria that you have when picking that actor? Matt: Matte you can speak to the audition process more. But the thing for us is we have years on this project before we ever had the opportunity for productions. And so some of them, actually Michelle Veintimilla is the only person who’s ever played Diana. And we’ve worked with her at workshops and practice rooms. She was part of that four hours. Matte: And she stuck with it, which is astounding. But she did the very first four hour reading. I actually saw her in this concert at Ars Nova NYC. As I recall it, it was sort of like electronic looping music and very not our Anne of Green Gables, though very enjoyable, but just not what we were doing. And I sat there and I was like, “I really think that girl could be Diana Barry.” Like I just had this weird thought and she really wasn’t doing anything that you would think would be like Diana Barry for us. And so I stalked her online. I really did. I went and she had just graduated Carnegie Mellon. I can’t remember how I did it, but I found her contact information and I just begged her to do the first reading. And as soon as we started working with her, it was no questions asked, that’s who it was. And luckily she stuck with us this entire time. But there is something too, we’ve also had other people attached. People that we’ve written in mind for. We had ideas for Marilla and I always kind of write with actors in mind, even if they’re never going to do the part. It just helps me kind of isolate the tone of the voice and the things in my head. And sometimes we get lucky and sometimes they do it and then sometimes they book other projects and they can’t do it anymore. And it all rotates. But I think that each actor leads you to the next correct choice. And I believe, when they say if it’s your story to tell, you’ll tell it. If it’s yours, whether it’s the actor or whether it’s us. And sometimes they book the right thing and they leave us and they go and do something else. That’s wonderful, and we need to believe in that. And then we just need to open our eyes and say: Okay, what did we learn from them? What was wonderful about what they brought to the role? What are we going to miss? What are we going to cry about? What are we going to be panicked about that we don’t have them anymore? And who’s coming in that can scratch that itch? But also what do they bring a new angle on? And one of the people that we had, a perfect example is Marilla. We had an actress Nancy Anderson, who I’ve worked with a ton, play Marilla brilliantly in a couple of readings.

Nancy Anderson and McKenzie Custin (foreground) in the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival 2018

Matt: Actually, our first reading, she played Rachel Linde. Matte: Oh yeah, she played Rachel Linde originally. Then I had her start doing Marilla and she was a brilliant Rachel Linde too. But we started doing Marilla with her and then she did it at the Finger Lakes with us. She booked 1776 and she was like completely devastated. And she’d been with the project for so long, but it just was a direct conflict, but we got to go back into the audition room and shake hat, Sharon Catherine Brown walked in and they actually do have very similar things about them in some way, I couldn’t put my finger on like the energy or quality that they do in the role that is similar. And then Sharon also brings this whole other thing that Nancy, it was just a different aesthetic that’s so uniquely Sharon and it’s exciting. You’ve got to kind of embrace that and say, okay, now work with Sharon and we tailored it to Nancy and we hope we’ll tailor it to Sharon strengths. And that’s how you work with the character. Patrick: And certainly one of the things that you’ve brought to this casting process is the original stories. It was an all-white community. Now you’re bringing in people of color to fill in various roles like shake hat, how does that impact the story in a way that L.M. Montgomery didn’t have in mind? Matt: Well, the first thing I’d start with, is actually it’s such a beloved story for Canadians. And so we are two Americans writing the story. And so right there is universal without a doubt, universal appealed to the story and the themes around the world. And I think starting right there, this is a story for everyone. And so there shouldn’t, I think be any limitations in terms of what those people need to look like. Matte: Yeah, Avonlea, though it was on Prince Edward Island and there’s just the truth of the makeup of Prince Edward Island, Avonlea is a fictional town. So we can make it whatever we want. And really honestly, I said when we started this virtual process, “This is the first show I’ve ever cast where I’ve gotten every single first choice actor that I wanted in the room with us.” And usually it’s someone gets double booked and we can’t get this person, we get this person and it’s all, oh, all shake hat. However it was really cool that. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but as the confirmations were coming in, I was like, this was literally every single person was the first choice that I had for this role. And I think we definitely wanted to make sure that it was a diverse cast and that it was resonating with as many people as possible. Also, we just got lucky that the combination that came into the room of people and backgrounds and ethnicities, and even where they’re from and their identities, sexual identities and stuff, it really organically started to fit together in this really beautiful way, which was just an exciting process. Patrick: And so with that diverse cast, how have you been able to tailor the musical writing as well as the dialogue writing to fit the various colors or do you just try to have a wide palette and then let the actors fill it in? Matt: I do think most of that comes from the actors. We have a song “Make a Move” that has been sung by different actors through the years. And I think everyone brings their own sort of vocal styling to it. I mean, as writers, I think we write a map that then the actors can, and we’re really responsive to, “Hey, can we take this melody up?” So it has a more soulful residence for me in a particular moment, or the comedic timing can be better tailored. So I think that’s something we’re always looking at, no matter who the cast is. Matte: You’re always sort of tailoring it suit to the person. And I’m always shocked when people don’t do that because I just think to myself, like we have the ability to change things, like we’re not dead. We’re not dead writers. So why wouldn’t we fit it to each person? And actually in those instances, it’s usually just Matt, myself and the performer at the piano and we have what we’ve written and then it’s just a matter of a real conversation, a push-pull and they’ll say my voice sits here better or this sound is better for me. And we just try and slowly inch it toward what really plays into every strength that they have. And if you do that, it makes us look better. I mean like, if they’re nailing the song each night and it really feels organic from them, then everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re such brilliant writers,” but it’s actually their performance elevating it.

Patrick: Now throughout the rehearsal process and now even in preview performances, you’re currently continuing to tweak, rewrite, edit this musical. Now, when does that process end for you? When do you know you’re finally done with this particular musical piece or dialogue Matt: Friday at noon. (laughing) Matte: And we’re so excited. We can’t wait for Friday at noon (laughing) and then you will see Matt and I disappear for at least several days of relaxation and not thinking Anne of Green Gables at all. I mean the hardest part is the in between, like right now the nice thing about it, is it’s up and running and you have a cast doing it. And so there are a lot less questions in that. You can just see the audience is getting that line. They’re getting that, that’s getting laugh. It’s not, we’re staying too long. It’s a little less ephemeral in your edits because you’re just like, “We’re too long here. It’s going too fast, whatever.” And so that’s really nice in the process. The thing that’s really unfortunate in that process is that you also have a cast performing eight shows a week and going to rehearsals, and you have to understand like how much these changes affect that and also affect the show for a couple of days. When we put in a change, the cast needs to catch up, they need a couple days to just make that feel organic and connect the dots again. And so you have to be sort of judicious in that process. I think we really made an effort to allow, especially in these times of COVID and stuff, we were trying not to change that much during the first few weeks of rehearsals — so that Jenn and everyone — we didn’t want to be tinkering too much as they were putting it all up on its feet initially, which means that right now we’ve had to do some more tinkering. Luckily, the show is in great shape. And I think changes that we’re putting in this week are doable and friendly to both the cast and to the show and to us. So that’s a nice feeling too. Patrick: Being in the show, I certainly know firsthand what it’s like to work on the show, but I’m so glad to get to talk to you individually and together as far as this process. So thank you for being here. Matte: Thank you for having us, it was a blast. Matt: Thank you.


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Why I’ll Never Make It is an award-winning, top 25 theater podcast. Host Patrick Oliver Jones is an actor and singer who is in the ensemble of Anne of Green Gables with the featured roles of Mr. Phillips and John Blythe. He is also in charge of writing, editing, and producing each episode of Why I’ll Never Make It. There you can subscribe to bonus episodes and offer your financial support toward the production of this podcast.


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