Lafayette Journal & Courier: Collaboration shaped Purdue’s “Betty’s Diner”

September 24, 2015

Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer and Purdue professor Rick Thomas worked together every step of the way to build the musical “Betty’s Diner,” which premieres Friday at Purdue.

Behind the prominent authorship credits at the top of a musical playbill lies an idea that’s not as easily visible. A simple ampersand between names listed beside one another in bold, stylized type merely represents collaboration — that key word that’s casually thrown around but not as often peeled back.

In the case of Carrie Newcomer and Rick Thomas’ “Betty’s Diner,” collaboration is the best place to start. The popular singer-songwriter and Purdue University visual and performing arts professor have worked together for decades, and this latest production — which is sold out for all performances — is the latest iteration of their collaborative projects.

The musical, which is presented by Purdue Theatre, will have its premiere performance Friday at Carole and Gordon Mallett Theatre. In the production, owner Miranda struggles to find her life’s purpose as she contends with selling the diner. More storylines — and a host of Newcomer’s old and new songs — wind through “Betty’s Diner” as the regular patrons’ journeys unfold. A five-person band directed by pianist Gary Walters, who records and tours with Newcomer, accompanies the singers on stage.

Longtime fans of the singer-songwriter might recognize the musical’s title from one of her former albums, which she said sprung from a short story she wrote. Although the resulting record bore a fictional title, Newcomer said her experience waitressing provided the substance for the work. On the album, the song with the same title provides an overview of the restaurant with introductions to characters.

“After I wrote the song ‘Betty’s Diner,’ the diner people were not done with me,” laughed Newcomer, who is from Elkhart.

So she expanded the characters’ stories into more tracks on what became “Regulars and Refugees.”

As was her custom, Newcomer sent her work to Thomas for feedback, and at that point, he suggested they turn the collection into a play. Although she hadn’t planned to venture in that direction, Newcomer said she found the idea intriguing. The two of them set to work on what they envisioned would be a small workshop type of production with dramatic storytelling and Newcomer singing, Thomas said. But as they continued work on the project, he said, the two decided that the characters needed to sing their own stories.

While musicals are expensive and challenging to produce, Thomas said they believed in the work’s potential and sought professional opinions as they polished each version.

The project’s process — Thomas said it came together over 10 years — demonstrates the strength of collaboration between the two. Their partnership dates to the mid-1980s, he said, when Thomas produced and engineered a few recordings with Newcomer and the band Stone Soup in West Lafayette. She had graduated from Purdue a few years before and made a name playing around the community.

Although Newcomer ended up moving to Bloomington, the two continued to work together. When Thomas sought a powerful voice, poet and songwriter, he contacted her. Their myriad collaborations have been wide-ranging — so much so that Thomas said he asked her to play the voice of God in one work and accompany a clock that served as a metaphor in another. The latter has become a running joke between the two.

Their longevity lies partly in corresponding motivations.

“(She) and I are very similar as artists. We get restless. We’re not the type of people to just keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Thomas said.

“I’m always trying to push my creative edges,” Newcomer said.

When the two say they wrote the musical together, they mean exactly that. Thomas and Newcomer connected via Skype, coffee in hand, and shared desktops once a week from their home bases in Indiana and wherever their travels took them. Line by line, they wrote the script. Thomas joked that whoever controlled the desktops had to quench the urge to type his or her thoughts first.

“The first thing that you have to have is mutual respect, and it sounds easy because you say, ‘Oh, I respect you,’ ” Thomas said.

“But when you’re in the trenches, fighting out, where one line takes two hours of discussion, you really start learning about what respect really, really means.”

He likened the process to peeling the layers of an onion to find its core. They developed the characters beyond their lines in the musical, which helped to craft the dialogue, lyrics and storylines.

Integrating the music with storyline was imperative, and that sometimes meant Newcomer had to rework lyrics to some of her most beloved songs to serve the narrative. Seeking to avoid a jukebox musical, Thomas said they had to maintain the songs’ center but advance the story. To accomplish this, Newcomer asked herself questions during the process.

“What is at the heart of this song? And I’ve been singing this song for a while … what do I know now that perhaps I didn’t know when I wrote it?” Newcomer said.

“And how can that be not just adapted to the diner but include the diner as part of what that song really is?”

Walters came on the scene as music director once Newcomer and Thomas decided to make the production a musical. He arranged her songs for the band and composed incidental music. For songs juxtaposed with scene-change music that pulls from the same source material, he stayed sensitive toward nuance of mood and timing.

“That to me means a great deal of difference in what I would present musically. Even though it might be the same exact song that just has been sung in an upbeat, happy way … now we need to make it have some melancholy,” Walters said.

The result of the collaboration, along with director Robin McKee’s experience and creativity, forged a product that the three are eager to present.

“(The audience) should feel happy and joyous and not even sure why,” Thomas said. “But the experience they just had was such a satisfying and joyous journey that their vision of life, their outlook on life has suddenly improved for a while.

“And … it’s not because it’s all candy-coated, sugar-coated, you know, vanilla theater. There’s a lot of really, really tough subjects and tough problems that get worked through in the show.”

More information

•What: Betty’s Diner

•When: Premieres Friday through Oct. 10

•Where: Carole and Gordon Mallett Theatre in Yue-Kong Pao Hall of Visual and Performing Arts, 552 W. Wood St. in West Lafayette

•Tickets: All performances of the show are sold out, according to Purdue Theatre.

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