What do you get when a screenwriter, a teacher and a deputy district attorney get together to write songs inspired by their upbringings as upper-middle-class Los Angeles Jews?
In the case of Matthew Fogel, Isaac Laskin and David Richman, you get Hey, Morgan!. The premiere of the hour-long comedy rock musical, from the Black Dahlia Theatre, will compete against revivals of theatrical giants such as The Color Purple and Spring Awakening for eight 2012 Ovation Awards.
Over brunch in Hancock Park on a recent Sunday, the enthusiastic Laskin and Richman (said teacher and attorney, respectively) are still riding high on their first production’s unexpected success.
The Hey Morgan! creators have a history. Laskin and Fogel met as undergraduates at Yale. Richman and Laskin met in LA, during the summer before Richman’s final year of law school at Vanderbilt.
Richman and Laskin formed a band called The Lincoln Bedroom. And Fogel joined them in another band, the Country Shylocks (“because we’re three Jews and we’re playing country music,” according to Richman).
While playing at open mic nights at dive bars in the San Fernando Valley around 2006, they noticed that audiences loved a song Fogel and Laskin had written called “Hey, Morgan.”
“I lived with this girl I went to high school with, Morgan Cohen, who’s just a sweet, kind of funny, princess, Jewish girl,” Laskin says. “We just kind of teased her a little. We’d give her a hard time.”
In the song, young Morgan is advised to not expose herself to men other than her boyfriend when she goes to Miami on a trip. Inspired by the song’s popularity, Fogel and Laskin set out to write more songs that, while not strictly about the real Morgan Cohen, borrowed from the lives of the girls like her that the three had grown up with.
With musical input from Richman, over the next several years Fogel and Laskin wrote a dozen songs about various episodes in the life of their main character (named Morgan), such as the night before she leaves for college and her experience living at home after graduation.
Laskin and Richman say part of the fun of composing was writing songs about the most mundane things in Morgan’s life and making them funny, even vulgar. “We take these really banal, small things that happen to her and we just heighten them,” Laskin says. “We just wrote stuff we thought was funny.”
While the songs clearly reference some of Morgan’s shortcomings and quirks, Richman says they aren’t making fun of her. “We’re giving her a hard time for those qualities, yet in the end it comes out in an endearing way.”
They wrote narration to string the songs together, and in January 2011 decided to stage a workshop of the whole show, now an hour long and titled Hey, Morgan!. Laskin, Fogel and Richman cast friends and actors they knew — three to play six roles, plus Laskin as narrator — and asked musician friends to play in the band. Richman played bass guitar.
The Hey, Morgan! workshop performed six shows over two weekends at the Attic Theatre, for an audience composed of friends and relatives. The reaction was positive, Laskin and Richman said, and Matt Shakman, founder and artistic director of the Black Dahlia Theatre, invited them to come to his theater and put on a full production. Shakman also became Hey, Morgan!’s director, and set to work blocking and staging the show.
While the workshop had seen the actors simply standing onstage while singing, the real production featured choreography that complemented the Dahlia’s small stage. The set also featured yards of string stretched tightly around the stage, bearing period memorabilia.
“He really elevated it,” Laskin says. “It wasn’t a piece of theater before the Dahlia, it was just this thing. Matt Shakman showed [Craig Siebels’ set design] to us and was like, ‘What do you think?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, looks amazing!’”
Hey, Morgan! premiered in October 2011. At first intended to run for only six weeks, it ended up staying at the Dahlia until March 2012, receiving mostly positive reviews.
If there is any theme to their work, it’s that every life, no matter how normal, has meaning, says Richman, who served as music director.
“Just because she’s going to high school, goes to college, gets a job, meets a husband, has a family, her story is no less important than any other,” Richman says. “There’s great dramatic weight in just a normal life. There’s a song about college where we describe how she just has this standard college girl experience doing all these different things.”
“A lot of people say, ‘That was my life.’ Which is a great, great compliment,” Laskin adds. “We maybe expected it a little from Jews, from Jewish girls, but we’ve had Catholics and all different women who have said, ‘That’s my life’.”
One person who can relate to Hey, Morgan! like no other is the real Morgan Cohen. “She’s been a great sport. She came to the workshop and the production,” Laskin says. “She was so gracious. Her parents came to see it, her whole family came.”
Laskin and Richman credit much of Hey, Morgan!’s success to the fact that they and Fogel created the show purely for their own enjoyment. With busy lives and day jobs unrelated to theater — Laskin has an MBA from UCLA and teaches English at Harvard-Westlake School, Richman is a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and Fogel is a working screenwriter — Hey, Morgan! was their chance to create whatever they wanted. That sense of fun shows in their work, Richman says.
“Matt is a screenwriter and a lot of his day is spent in meetings with executives and studios and what not,” Richman says. “He’s the writer, they’ve hired him, and yet he gets an avalanche of notes that don’t make sense from people who haven’t written a thing in their lives. So to have complete creative control to say ‘I don’t care what anybody says, this is what we’re going to do,’ has led both to the enjoyment and I think the success.”
Fogel responded to Richman’s comment, in a later email: “For some reason Dave is very angry with the Hollywood studio system. I love writing big, fun comedy photo-plays. But for doing smaller, more personal work, there’s nothing better than theater.”
In fact, everyone involved in Hey, Morgan! was there simply to have fun and support their friends. Laskin says the band and actors weren’t paid for the workshops, and no one would have minded if Hey, Morgan! had stopped there.
“It is that cliché of working on something because you want to work on it and caring about what you’re working on instead of worrying about the outcome,” Laskin says. “We’re working on this because we think it’s cool, because we think it’s funny, we love doing it. Even if we do a concert one night with 20 friends, that would be worth it.”
Laskin and Richman say they would like to ultimately expand Hey, Morgan! by another 20 or 30 minutes but don’t necessarily envision it ever being a full-length show. And writing another musical is always a possibility — with one catch.
“We just need to figure out a new friend whose life story we can steal,” Richman says.