Bar Bulletin

August, 2004

Calling Out the Tune
By Patrick Tandy

Mary Goulet
UP, UP AND (WORLDS) AWAY
Mary Goulet's musical Worlds Away opens in New York City on August 26.

“I had started talking about an opera, but it seemed like so many people were put off by ‘opera’,” explains Mary Goulet, whose musical Worlds Away debuts on August 26 at the Producers Club II in New York City. “To me, it’s just a question of nomenclature.”

To many others, however, the bigger question might be how exactly the Reston, Virginia-based patent law attorney with Baltimore roots came to pen a piece of metaphysical musical theater in the first place.

But before the curtain goes up on this show, perhaps it would be best to first learn a bit about Goulet herself…

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“My background was mainly scientific,” explains Goulet, who had already obtained a natural sciences degree from Johns Hopkins University by the time she enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Law. “After a few years in general practice here in Baltimore some people said, ‘You’re crazy. Why don’t you take your science background and go do patent law?’ So I got back into the science there. That was what put me into these groups of people who had different science backgrounds.”

It was at the recommendation of one such colleague that Goulet read Hyperspace, by Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. The book had a profound impact upon Goulet, and it would ultimately provide the inspiration for Worlds Away.

“[Kaku] was writing about what technology it’s going to take [for humankind] to move to the next level of civilization,” says Goulet. “They’re talking about things like controlling the weather – we don’t even predict the weather now. But this whole idea of how you control the weather, how you travel faster...

“In modern physics, there’s been some writing about [the existence of] other dimensions that we don’t really understand or know yet,” she continues. “These are real physicists that are writing about this, not science fiction [writers].”

It was upon these fundamental principles that Goulet set upon writing what would ultimately become Worlds Away.

“I started writing the music for it in the late ’90s,” says Goulet, who studied piano under Julio Esteban at the Peabody Conservatory during her school days in Baltimore. “The songs each had their little life, [but] they didn’t yet have a place to go. I knew there were certain things I had wanted to write about, but Worlds Away hadn’t started.”

Then a spirited exchange with a friend over New Year’s resolutions a few years later resulted in Goulet’s decision to write a musical.

“The concept was to frame a story with three different worlds,” she explains. “A world that’s our earth and our universe, our dimensions, everything that we know, plus all the space that’s been charted – that’s one world, the first world.

“For this story, we created a second world, which is the world of those other dimensions that we don’t really know yet. What we know is what they’re not; they’re not x, y, z and time. And then we’ve created a third world that kind of sits on top of those other two worlds. It’s the world of what we call the Hyperbeings – we portray these characters as more ephemeral, more spiritual. We have characters in each of these worlds who are interacting with each other and wanting to do and accomplish certain things, wondering what they’re supposed to be doing.

“The main character, Monet, is here in our world, the earth world,” Goulet explains. “[Monet] is somewhat based on my experience, but taken to wide extremes of my experience. So as a child she was way more gifted than I was and now, as an adult, she’s way more successful than I [am].

“An important aspect of the story is how this character [Monet] who has gotten away from some of the talents and abilities and strengths of her [childhood] to instead go in a more commercial, lucrative direction starts to question how 15 or 20 years [in the] past she got off on this tangent or sidetrack. So a large part of the story is her reaching out and questioning what she’s meant to be doing and how her life unfolded this way. And in her reaching out and stretching out to ask herself those questions, she captures the attention of one of the Hyperbeings, a character in the quote-unquote upper world…I mean, when you’re a kid you feel like you can accomplish anything. And you have plans for yourself, and the adults have plans for you, and then over time most people I think get away from the plans that they have for themselves as children, and they take a particular approach that’s suited to their talents and what they’re getting As or Bs in and what’s looking like a sensible approach. What makes them go in that – you know, the more commercial, the more routine [direction]? Like the brilliant kids who are blowing things up – how could you get them directed so that instead of becoming problems they flourish?”

Other characters include Monet’s non-Earth world counterpart, the dimension-hopping explorer Stefan, and Adu, a Hyperbeing from the “non-physical” top world “who can look upon and change the physical worlds,” such as those of Monet and Stefan.

Needless to say, Goulet has given thought to life beyond what’s known, beyond the here and now.

“I think there’s always this hope that there’s something, that it’s not just us,” she suggests. “But what I really like to think about is who would be – like of our candidates running for office – who would be really good if we had to suddenly confront some sort of extraterrestrial life situation? How would George Bush do with that? He’s not even doing all that well with same-sex couples, how’s he going to do with E.T.?”

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With her ideas and characters in place, Goulet next needed her words to make the transition from page to stage.

“People would say, ‘You really need to do a reading,’” she says. “You need to hear how it sounds spoken – how things sound on the page as you’re silently reading are different than how it is when the people talk. Something that you thought sounded very brilliant on the paper...suddenly the characters are saying it and even you think, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so pedantic!’ or ‘That’s so bossy and preachy!’”

To facilitate the search for a cast of players, Goulet set up an “E-Audition,” by which prospective actors and actresses could try out for the various roles through the production’s website, www.worldsawaymusical.com.

“Since I’m not Andrew Lloyd Webber, I can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do a musical in a year, isn’t that great?’” jokes Goulet, who in large part credits the Internet for enabling her to access the tools necessary to stage the musical. “It’s not a ‘my people will call your people’ sort of thing. If I call somebody and they’re not recognizing the name, they’re not really going to call back. So we needed something to start to get people’s attention.”

The E-Audition proved just the thing, and in January 2003 a full-cast reading of Worlds Away was given to a sold-out crowd at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia. Close observation and audience feedback enabled Goulet to further hone the work-in-progress.

To Goulet, staging a full-scale production in the Northern Virginia/DC area “seemed like the natural thing to do at first. But when I did the research and looked for theater space and investigated cost – you look at parking, how far in advance they will book, you look at everything – a lot of the theaters in one of the counties that I was looking at had rules where if you weren’t with the county or if you were other than a nonprofit you couldn’t book or you couldn’t collect money. Okay, well, we’re not looking to just do it for free.

We want to pay our actors and make it all equal out, but we’re not a nonprofit, so we’re not going to try to scamper and become a nonprofit. So having researched the Northern Virginia/DC area, I just thought that it wasn’t terribly friendly to proceeding in an economical fashion. So...I thought, ‘Let’s start to check New York.’ I found that New York really is definitely set up to do even small theater – not just Broadway, but you can go and rent theater space. And people there are very cooperative.”

Once in New York, Goulet secured a director (“my first-choice guy”), and from there Worlds Away gradually fleshed out into the full-fledged production that will premiere on August 26. The musical’s success in New York, Goulet admits, will largely determine whether the Baltimore/DC area will see its own full-dress presentation.

“Hopefully, but we don’t have any current plans [for a Baltimore/DC production],” says Goulet. “I think that would be great, [but] I don’t know if it will happen. I’m good at seeing one thing happen [at a time] and then gathering up the things that need to happen for that to go forward.”

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So why has Mary Goulet chosen to express her ideas in the medium of musical theater?

“I guess I just think that music speaks to people, that you have more of a chance of reaching them, that they’re more interested sometimes in something that’s conveyed through music,” says Goulet, who is already working on her next theatrical endeavor: composing the musical score for David Whiteree’s Jamestown the Musical (www.jamestownthemusical.com), an unconventional look into Virginia’s 400-year heritage. “If I have something that I want to say, if I have a theme and I just comment and say, well I want to tell people that I think there’s too much materialism in the world, does somebody want to read that as a message in a story, or are they going to be more inclined to think it over and mull it over if it has somehow found its way into a character who’s singing a song?”

But what will the critics think of Worlds Away?

“Like our director told me, ‘A critic could come, and he could write bad things,’” says Goulet. “I read the autobiography of Richard Rodgers, and he was saying it’s not really fair to judge a musical the first time you go see it. I was kind of surprised when I read that that’s what he had to say. I’m thinking, ‘Well, why not?’ I think a critic had written something about the song structure or something, and [Rodgers] was saying, ‘That’s not fair because you really can’t judge it until you’ve gone several times.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that might be one of the few things I don’t necessarily agree with because you’re going there the first time – shouldn’t it be directed toward you, the first-timer? Shouldn’t it be able to reach that person? Should they have to attend multiple times to pick up on what’s being said? Is that the right way to communicate with an audience?

“You can’t let other people make your decisions for you. People are always going to be telling you negatives because that’s just how people think. There’s always going to be somebody who has some explanation why what you’re doing is weak. If you believe in something and it’s your own dream, you can’t expect other people to just pick it up and make it happen. The best you can do is to give it your maximum effort and see what happens.”

But perhaps for Mary Goulet, the ultimate barometer of success will come when the house lights go down on that opening-night audience.

“You really don’t know what’s going to happen until there’s a live audience,” Goulet admits. “At least, that’s what they say in the books, and it sounds right. You can’t force people to come. And once they come…I hope that they walk away questioning and wondering whether they’re doing what’s right for them. I’m not so much interested in telling people what they should think or who they should be, but I would be really happy if even just a couple of the audience members walk away thinking, ‘Am I where I want to be in my life? Have I done everything that I was meant to accomplish? Is there more that I should expect of myself?’”

Indeed, perhaps Goulet’s working relationship with her audience is not wholly dissimilar to that between Oscar Hammerstein II (curiously, a student of the law himself) and his most famous collaborator, the aforementioned Mr. Rodgers.

“I hand him a lyric,” Hammerstein once noted, “and get out of his way.”

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