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At the Piano: Maestro Dan Furman

Interview by Jen Bush

Dan Furman is a Tennessee born and Brooklyn based jazz pianist and composer.  His musical journey began at a tender age when he began playing and composing which led him to study jazz, music composition and musical theater.  He is the artistic director of The Brooklyn Tavern Theater where you will soon be able to see his exciting new work, Impossible But True for which he was the composer, lyricist and bookwriter. 

“I am a jazz pianist who writes musicals. I studied composition back in college, but realized that post-modern classical music just doesn’t reach that many people. And I believe that art has to connect with society in order to really bloom and flourish.”

“Luckily, I had been exposed to jazz in high school and had begun writing for my own bands. After a decade or so working in factories as a political activist, I went back to jazz piano and led World Mambo Mission in Atlanta, GA and the Primordial Jazz Funktet here in NYC.”

 “While looking for work as an unemployed pianist in Manhattan, I also discovered music theater. I was lucky enough to get into the BMI Music Theater Workshop, which gave me a good introduction to writing musicals.  Impossible But True began in that workshop as a collaboration with Mary-Liz McNamara. (Mary-Liz’s lyrics are still an important part of 4 songs from this show!). When the collaboration ended, I decided to finish the show and it eventually found its place as a tavern musical in 2018.”

Mr. Furman recognizes that there are many colorful characters and scenarios in this world and that’s what he likes to write about.  He likes his work to reflect the positive aspects of life and living with the notion that change for the better is possible.  “I don’t really like writing songs about myself. I like to have characters to write for–characters who have a reason to sing. I know it’s a bit contrary to the fashion of diving deep into personal experience and identity–but my philosophy is, write what you don’t know.  It’s a big world out there and there are so many interesting subjects and stories to write about–to learn about–to discover.”

“But one thing about me that has influenced my writing is the belief that things are possible–that the world can be changed for the better and it’s up to us to do it. Several of the shows I’ve worked on have this as one of their central themes– from Impossible But True to Ybor City (co-written with Anita Gonzalez) to The Joe Hill Revival.”

Some deep thinking outside of the box went into the creation of Impossible But True.  The source material for the book was kind of sleepy, pun fully intended.  Once the story was spun and told from a different point of view, it worked. “I’m going to tell you what should have inspired me NOT to write this musical. I was a composer in the second year of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop.  My collaborator, Mary-Liz McNamara, and I decided to write our first show based on Washington Irving’s short story, Rip Van Winkle. We had a lot of fun writing it–but after a while, we ran into book trouble.

The main problem was, Irving’s story is a terrible script for a musical.

Here’s why:

–Rip Van Winkle is a nice guy who doesn’t do much of anything except fall asleep and then wake up 20 years later. What kind of hero is that?

–There’s very little action or almost no dialogue in Irving’s story. Some nice descriptions of the Catskills and the quaint residents of the little town. But there’s no romance and no villain. What kind of musical is that going to be?

–Finally: not only are we missing romance, but in Irving’s short story, Rip hates his wife, who is described a terrible nag. When he comes back to the town 20 years later, he is relieved to discover that she is dead. And he lives happily ever after. His wife doesn’t even merit having a name in the story. Just wife.

That is not a story we want to tell today.

So, as I worked on it, this show moved further and further from the quaint confines of Irving’s story. Since Rip fell asleep in the hills before the American revolution and then woke up years after it was over–some interesting possibilities are raised. Revolutions are more interesting than long naps. In our show, the revolution becomes the engine–or, horsepower– propelling the whole story. Although Rip is still a lead character, It became more of a story about how the revolution affected him and his small town in the Catskills.

Impossible But True is different from other shows that deal with the American Revolution–like 1776 or Hamilton—it’s not about the Washingtons, Jeffersons and Hamiltons—it’s about ordinary small-town people who carried out the groundwork during a great historical change. And through that process, what seemed impossible–became possible.

We had to make it clear from the beginning of the show that this is not going to be quite the Rip Van Winkle story you’re used to. We did it like this: our acting troupe welcomes the audience into the bar where you’re seeing the show. The character of Nicolaus Vedder is in charge. He’s introducing the characters and thinks the show is going to start with a song from Rip. But we discover that Rip’s wife, Rebecca, has rewritten the script. She’s given herself the opening song, which she proceeds to sing. In fact, she also leads the final song of the whole show–so if you want, you could look at this as the story of Rip Van Winkle and the American Revolution–as told by Rebecca, his wife.”

Mr. Furman would like people to leave the show with the message that one change can produce a wonderful and positive domino effect leading to bigger and better things in this world.  “I’ve been a political activist for most of my life. There are always people who say that fundamental change, let alone revolution, isn’t possible. We grow up in American schools learning about the founding fathers–these great enlightened men who framed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and tend to assume that if we were all living back then, of course we’d be for the revolution, right? Well, no. It started out as a minority. If you grew up in a small town in the Catskills in the mid-1700s, you might think it was insane to take on the British army.”

“When the pandemic hit in 2020, many of us found ourselves temporarily trapped in our homes and apartments, contemplating the world outside our windows–and we didn’t always like what we saw. To those who said the American revolution was impossible, this show has an answer: as soon as we start to change the world, new things we could not have imagined can become possible. After a night full of music, dance, tragedy and comedy, this is the message that we want the audience to walk out the door with.”

Covid is still present, but Mr. Furman agrees that the timing was right to see the return of the performing arts.  “I think it’s time to open back up. Unless there is a significant upsurge, we will notbe requiring negative COVID tests or proof of vaccination. Everyone should look out for their own safety, and certainly wear a mask if they like.”

Post-Covid Mr. Furman thinks that we should dispense with the tunnel vision of the past and embrace inclusivity in all aspects of theater.  “Coming out of the pandemic, I think theater should continue the movement toward inclusiveness in casting and what is produced. I do not  think we should throw out the Western canon–but this is a great time to break free of the limitations and narrowness we’ve inherited from the past.”

There is no sleeping on the job for this talented artist who has plenty in the works for the future of the Brooklyn Tavern Theater and beyond.  “Brooklyn Tavern Theater premiered The Joe Hill Revival last fall and I would like to bring this show to a larger venue. It is a revival of the story of Joe Hill–a retelling of the story of the union activist and songwriter Joe Hill in the light of what’s going on in the world today. There’s real activity going on in working class politics now and I think it’s a good time for this show.”

“I’ve also been working with director Christopher Noffke on The Proust Virus, a musical about video game characters who come to life inside a young woman’s computer. This is a much more contemporary show than Impossible But True!–one that we’d like to workshop and move towards a production.”

“But Impossible But True is a really fun and moving show to do–so we’ve discussed making it a regular Fall tradition of Brooklyn Tavern Theater if we can find the venues and financial support to do so.”

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