Everyone wants to update classic properties these days, but not everyone is Michael Mott. The multi-hyphenate (he’s a composer, songwriter, performer and lyricist) has taken the timeless Doctor Faustus narrative and truly put his own stamp on it with his new musical In the Light, A Faustian Tale, the cast album for which is available now via Broadway Records.
But the story of how In the Light, A Faustian Tale got here is as much of a journey as the musical itself. Michael joined me to talk about the project’s years of development, what it actually means to mix the contemporary with the classic, and what the creative process looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brittany Frederick: Lots of people claim to have contemporary takes on things, whether it’s musicals or TV shows. What does that actually mean creatively?
Michael Mott: Well, first off, musicals take so long to develop. The average length of developing a musical is about seven to ten years. That’s on average. I like to write in a variety of styles, but the one common theme in all of my musicals is that they all feel timeless. I want my shows to maintain longevity and feel relevant for years to come. I started working on In The Light literally in high school when it was called Faustus. Now it’s a completely different show than it was then, but the seed of this idea started with a friend in high school. The thing about a “contemporary spin on a classic tale” simply means it’s written with a modern pop sensibility, but it’s symphonic, so it’s timeless.
You’re not hearing EDM production. It’s not a techno show. It very well could be produced that way. I’ve often thought about “Oh, if I really want to make this compete against a Six or a Hamilton, that’s how I would music produce it,” but that’s not what this is, nor what I’m really interested in it being that. There’s a place for those shows, but this is a very sweeping, epic, romantic work that features a huge orchestra and to me, that’s one of the factors that makes it timeless.
BF: That development process undoubtedly came with changes. How much of In the Light was altered over the years? Did you ever blow the whole thing up and start over?
MM: We did that. I went and counted and this has been through 13 different major rewrites. Within those 13 rewrites, I’d say there’s about 11 different versions of this show that we’ve written. I’m not exaggerating at all. This started with a friend from high school and we worked on it together. We really tried to make it work, and then we went to college and we didn’t work on it for four years. Then after college, opportunities came, so we started to work on it again. We ended up bringing on another book writer who is now the main book writer, and his name is Nathan Wright. Nathan and I have been working together on what is now In The Light, A Faustian Tale since 2015.
This version that you now see and hear really began to formulate in 2015 and since then, there’s been about four different drafts that we’ve cycled through. I’ve cut over 80 songs. There’s just so many trunk songs from this show and so many different versions of the songs that ultimately did make the final cut. The main three that have remained through every version are “Her Embrace,” which is the big eleven o’clock number; I originally wrote the first version of that in like 2013. Then there’s a song called “Dare to Dream,” which is also from 2013. Finally, there’s a song called “Rise or Fall,” which is actually the seed of a song I wrote when I first started this project back in senior year in high school. So there’s a lot of evocative memories in that piece.
Those are the only three. Everything else is completely brand new. There’s themes that have remained; if you go back and listen to my high school demos, you’ll think “Oh, those four bars are from that version from high school.” It’s a two-hour show and I’m very proud of it. It’s massive, like I said. But the reason why it’s massive is because the themes are massive, the characters are massive, the situations are massive, so it requires a big score.
BF: In the Light has an incredible cast with the likes of Jeremy Jordan and Solea Pfeiffer. How did you find this ensemble and get them on board the project?
MM: I’m very fortunate because I have some phenomenal connections in the industry, and I knew I wanted to have a very diverse cast and I wanted it to represent what the world looks like. Most of the people involved are friends or people I’ve worked with before in the past on various projects, concerts, and/ or recordings of mine. I made a list with my musical director Joshua Zecher-Ross, and I was like, “Okay, here’s all the people for Ana. Here’s all the people for Valentine.” We made our top choices and then I reached out and we literally got every single one of them. It’s pretty spectacular and I couldn’t be more proud. Just massive stars from the stage and screen and I’m just so proud and humbled.
To top it all off, we did this all virtually. This entire album was made during the pandemic. People were recording all over the world. Ciara Renée recorded in her childhood closet in her bedroom in Pennsylvania. Those pristine, perfect vocals were recorded in her closet and you can’t tell. It sounds like we spent a lot of money on a professional studio. The only folks in a real studio were Jeremy Jordan, Solea Pfeiffer and the vocal ensemble. The rest were all over Zoom.
BF: That’s the catch-22 of where theater is right now. It’s terrible not to have live theater, but by putting out the album like this, you can also reach a wider audience that couldn’t get to a show. So how has the pandemic changed your approach as a creator?
MM: That’s exactly right. You know, theater is my passion. I love musical theater. I love the stage. I graduated from Ithaca College with a BFA in Musical Theatre Performance. I was a professional actor for seven years. I am a performer, through and through I’m a ham at heart. But you can reach more people with one album…with one song from an album in an article online, then you can reach in an audience in one night. And there’s something really important about that right now as we try to build this brand.
There’s something incredible about using this album as a calling card to the show, building the brand, building an audience, and then bringing them to the theater. My goal obviously is to have this show performed onstage. But maybe its path to getting to the stage is a little different. Andrew Lloyd Webber started this idea of creating concept recordings of his musicals that would build an audience and then bring them to the theater. It’s a very old school tradition, I guess, but it clearly worked for him and many people have followed suit since. I just want to get this material out there, build an audience and get people interested in the work.
BF: Another strength of yours is that you’ve been a performer. Does your acting experience inform your songwriting and development?
MM: You’re absolutely right. I act everything out. And my book writer, Nathan Wright, also acts everything out and then we get together and we act it out together. The thing that is a little bit more tricky is that I write from my vocal type, in my range. So when I work with a female vocalist, like Solea Pfeiffer for example, I have to figure out where the songs sit in her voice to make her shine best. What are her money notes? Also, you have to keep in mind where the character is in the storyline, so you have to know what’s appropriate and when. It’s figuring out, “Well, is her lower register more appropriate for this moment? But then maybe it’s like one tone out of range.” So a lot of the material is developed within rehearsal process with different singers.
For this particular show, we have been very fortunate in that we’ve had tons of table readings, out-of-town workshops and chances to try different things. A lot of the vocal material in the keys have been set already, over the last two or three years. We did a huge workshop in New York in 2019, and then from there we did a workshop at Ithaca College, and then Nathan and I did a writer’s retreat in Massachusetts. There’s been so much development of this work so we’ve been able to figure out song keys and set the material correctly.
BF: As a fan, do you have particular types of music or musical artists who inspire you?
MM: I’m a huge music fan. I grew up listening to pop radio. From a songwriting perspective, I’m a massive fan of Billy Joel and Mariah Carey. I think she does not get enough credit for the incredible songwriting that she’s done. I mean, 19 number-one hits?! Unheard of! I love John Mayer. He is turning out brilliant material. I’m a huge fan of just well-crafted songs, so that’s where my mind always goes. As far as actors go, all these actors on this album. I was a fanboy. And still when I text Ciara Renée I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m texting her.”
BF: So as someone who can appreciate pop music and classic musicals, what are your thoughts on how we’re seeing more pop sensibilities in musicals these days? There seems to be more crossover, more of a modernization of what a musical is.
MM: think that back in the fifties and sixties, the Rogers and Hammerstein days, that was the popular music of the day. That music that you’d see in the theater would be the music you’d hear on the radio. There has been a separation [since]; this is not a bad thing, it’s just what it is. As shows developed and we had geniuses like [Stephen] Sondheim come on board, those are not really songs you’d hear on the radio. We’d have Frank Sinatra and the artists of the day cover “Send in the Clowns” and songs from musicals, but by and large, there was a diversion of what was on the radio and what was on stage.
Now the music that you hear on stage is not the music you hear on the radio, but with Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] and The Greatest Showman, there’s a little bit of crossover that happened. I know Frank Wildhorn in the nineties was trying to do that with Jekyll and Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel. Trying to merge the gap with his shows. And look at Sara Bareilles—we have these pop stars writing shows and bringing them to the stage. I think it’s great and there’s a place for everything.
I write pop music as well. Actually just put out a six-track pop EP that does have a narrative. It was influenced by my last relationship. It’s called The Only One and it features Ciara Renee, Pia Toscano from American Idol, and Blaine Kraus from Hamilton. It’s a pop EP that’s meant to be listened to in one 20-minute sitting. People always say to me “You write so many pop records and you put out so much pop music, why don’t you write a musical in that style?” And this is what I was trying to say earlier. I write theater very differently than I write pop, because theater is about showing. I’m going to write about my inner thoughts and emotions of this moment…Whereas a pop song is an aural experience with no visuals, and you paint a picture that way. My approach between pop and theatre is just very different from inception and I don’t blend the two.
But as far as musical style and influence goes, shows take about seven to ten years to develop. If I’m writing a musical now that’s a pop musical, in six months it’s going to sound outdated. My pop album I put out in April is still relevant right now, but by the fall those sounds will be probably be old news. It’s just a whole different game and you’re constantly trying to chase the next new sound. And by the time you do, it’s outdated. So I like to write timeless and contemporary pieces when working in theatre.
BF: What’s one thing about what you do that you would want people to know, or think they’ve overlooked?
MM: This past year and a half has been so emotionally, mentally, physically taxing and challenging for so many people. Artists especially have suffered immensely in the United States. And the one thing that most people did during this time is that they’ve consumed art—they’ve turned on their televisions, they’ve watched Netflix and Hulu and listened to albums on Spotify and such. And that art costs so much money to make. 1,500 streams on Spotify equals $1.00 for the writer. And you’re talking about an album that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most people want that content for free and the Internet has made it such that people believe that content should be free. [But] hundreds of people are employed by making one song—not only the artists, but the musicians, to the studios, to the bookers, to the engineers, to the producers, to the assistants. Not to mention the PR people who make these interviews possible. There’s just so many people involved in making art happen. So I say all that to say the one thing I’m very passionate about is that if you do love someone’s art, purchase it. Because it makes a difference. That $6.99 purchase on iTunes may seem like nothing, but many $6.99 purchases are a lot better than one half-stream on Spotify that is not going to even give us a portion of a penny.