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INTERVIEW: Keith Hovis on Sparkling Junior Talent Pageants…for Theatrical Purposes (Park Square Theatre)

The cast of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, opening Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

This Friday, a show with a surprisingly long title opens at Park Square Theatre: the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant musical. This roaring comedy – a story of 30-something adults revisiting the hyper-competitive junior talent competition of their youth – was a hit at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival. For this featured run, show creator Keith Hovis has expanded the script and score for into a full-length evening.

Show creator? Yes, Keith Hovis does it all when it comes to writing: he’s the show’s playwright, composer, and lyricist. Keith spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about bringing the show into the world and dolling it up for its debut on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.


Composer-librettist Keith Hovis.

How did you first get the kernel of an idea that grew into the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant musical?

I had hit my thirties and was going through some changes both professionally and personally. I looked around and saw that I had a number of friends who were going through the exact same process. This reflection that comes with age. It’s not that I was scared of getting older – in fact, I’m relishing my thirties – but it was more a moment of, “Where did I think I was going to be by now, and am I happy with the direction life took?”

I think everyone at some point in their life feels lost, and this show grew out of that. What happens when life shifts and you have to find a new path? How do you deal with failure, and what does failing even mean? And at the end of the day, who are the people you choose to surround yourself with?

I began thinking about those first moments of “failure” in my life: times that I had built up in my mind, but upon reflection were so inconsequential. We still keep going back to those moments in our minds. And with that, the pageant was born.

Also, I grew up in a small town – Princeton, MN – so part of this was me writing a satirical love letter to the place that shaped me, challenged me, and ultimately set me on a path to being who I am.

At what point did you decide to commit to performing this specific show at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival?

At first, when I had the idea, I wasn’t sure if I should do it for fringe. When I applied to the fringe, I had originally gotten my cast to sign on by pitching them a comedic horror musical about cannibals and a summer camp. They were all very excited, so when I went back and said, “Hey, I might do a show about adults staging a rematch of a child’s talent pageant,” the initial reactions were essentially “Okay…” – but they trusted me. I gave myself a little time to work on both shows to see which one started flowing first, and Jefferson won. And then once I got into the fringe festival, I wrote down the title and decided to go for it. They still ask me when the cannibal musical will happen. Ha.

So, we should not look forward to a cannibal music in a future season? It seems to have worked out for Trey Parker and Matt Stone…

Yeah, I had/have some wild ideas for it, so it is still on my list of potential project ideas. We’ll see how inspiration strikes. (Hah.)

What are some of the ways that this show has evolved from its Fringe run to the show opening at Park Square?

In developing the show, I am not exaggerating when I say that I have written at least four distinctly different versions. We took it in so many directions, only to ultimately end up with a structure similar to the original, but expanded with more songs, fleshed out characters, deeper histories and motivations, more pageant, etc…

I think you have time now to further care about the characters. Invest in their journey. At the fringe, the audience is willing to take wild leaps of logic with you in order to finish the show in 55 minutes. In a full-length musical, you have to fill in those gaps. There was a lot of great material in those other versions of the show, but at the end of the day, we had to ask ourselves, “What is the central story and do those conversations/plot points fit?” Or, “Is that a whole different show we should write at a future date?”

We had time to explore those possibilities, which is cool.

Travis Hernandez (Zach Garcia) meets with Valerie Hutchinson (Leslie Vincent) underneath her shrine to victory in Park Square’s full-length premiere of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Musical theatre titles are usually fairly short – Parade, Show Boat, Love Never Dies, etc., etc. This show is the opposite, at 15 syllables. How did you arrive at the title?

Titles are hard. (Hah.)

I wanted the title to evoke the absurd spirit of the show…I thought Jefferson Township was too vague and Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant was too generic. Together, however, it was funny to me and seemed right.

At one point, I dropped Sparkling, but there’s so much subtext in that word. We’re born with so much promise, and when and how does it start to dim? And why do we let it dim due to ridiculous expectations placed on us by ourselves and others?

Also, when you’re on a Fringe website with 120+ other shows, you need to stand out in some way. A title and image that makes people stop. With this title, and the image of four adults, you immediately got so much information.

You’ve written the lyrics, book, and music for this show. Is this your normal modus operandi?

It is. Honestly, my mind has a hard time wrapping around those people who can write lyrics and not know how it sounds. I, personally, cannot write a lyric without hearing how it should sound.

My writing is all about syncopation and finding the right flow of the words to create a rhythm that adds to the music/melody…although, I do break a lot of songwriting rules lyrically in this show. (Don’t tell Ben Krywosz at Nautilus Music-Theater – I did their composer-librettist studio.) But those decisions of when to break rules were deliberate.

In terms of also writing the book, I think it helps provide a consistent tone throughout. It would be great to find a book writer who I mesh with and who has the exact same style and understands me, but too many musicals with incredible scores are absolutely derailed by a book that isn’t serving the show well. A great musical pays attention to all of those elements in equal measure. Look at Gypsy – now that is a show where they were not afraid to let the book scenes breathe and be just as dynamic as the music.

That being said, I would love to collaborate on a show in the future. I’ve been experimenting with it on a few projects, and feel like that would be a good next step that’s important for my growth. For example, I have a background in devised work, and am interested in seeing how that world could combine with the incredibly structured world of musical theater. This has already led to a collaboration and the show A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters at the 2018 Twin Cities Horror Festival. It was a phenomenal experience, birthing a show I am so proud of, and it taught me a lot about sharing the writing process.

Otherwise, for my musicals, I would love to find someone who is an expert at arranging and orchestrating to be my artistic partner. I am the slowest notator alive (only a slight exaggeration).

How do you do most of your music notation and composition? Pencil and paper? Finale or Sibelius?

I use Finale, but even though I have done tutorials on all of the shortcuts, I don’t use them. Every note is entered manually, one click at a time. I usually break up the notation into sections as I add layers (additional vocals, piano, etc.) and do a lot of listening and re-listening to the awful midi to ensure it is how I want it.

When writing a song, I usually find a base chord progression or riff I like and then build the song. I don’t put anything down in Finale until it is complete and I have full sense of how it should go.

Pages from the script and score of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant.

You have a whole other career as the Director of Communications at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Some artists find double careers to be a point of cognitive dissonance, while others run the spectrum from juggling to finding synergies. How do your two different professional sides relate or not relate?

I have always had the incredible fortune of working for understanding bosses. I started this job in September 2018; during my interview, the Dean of the Humphrey School told me she had seen Jefferson. It was such a great place to start from, since I made it clear this project would need some attention, and work/life balance was important.

Prior to this job, I spent eight years working in various communications roles for commissioners in Governor Dayton’s administration. The leadership at both agencies I worked for were really supportive. Both careers are demanding, and both offer fulfillment. In both places, I get to be creative, which is great. I am so lucky to have carved a path in both worlds, and that is something I don’t take for granted.

I don’t really talk about my work in communications when I’m doing theater, so most people are surprised. To me, that separation is important. The hardest part is balance. Jefferson has demanded a lot of my time, which in turn means conversations with both the theater and my boss about how we can be flexible. But that balancing is a constant struggle. It’s tiring. There are days when I get home from work, and the last thing I want to do is sit down at the keyboard and write. But there is a deadline looming, so you do it. Having both jobs has taught me a lot about time management and how to turn off one part of your brain when the other needs to be activated. I think it is an ongoing battle that I will always be trying to figure out. As well as how to have two jobs and make time for family and friends and relationships.

Here’s the thing though: My career in communications has taught me about my value. It has taught me that I am enough, I am in the room for a reason, and I have a right to be compensated fairly. Those are lessons I am constantly trying to bring over to my work in the arts, where it is easy to lose confidence and forget your value. There is power in reminding ourselves, daily, that as artists, each of us is enough and bring amazing talent to the table. We are in the room for a reason. We have value. And we need to stand up for ourselves and for each other. That’s a mantra I’ve been working to adopt.

Sometimes you need to just see if you can fit into your old clothes… Pictured: Leslie Vincent (foreground), Kelly Houlehan, Zach Garcia, and Ryan London Levin. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Musical theatre scores usually have a whole slew of songs that are cut during the journey to opening night. What’s a song that was cut from this show and why?

I wrote around 35 songs for this show, 19 of which made it in (plus an original medley of patriotic music performed by a contestant for the pageant).

Writing songs is a beast. Even more than cutting dialogue, when we would drop a song, or even cut pieces of a song, it would hurt because each song represented hours and hours of crafting and writing; testing different melodies and hooks. But it’s all for the betterment of the show.

There are references to a former contestant who died during the 1997 pageant, which is why the the pageant was cancelled and the characters never got a chance to win the crown. We went through a phase where the lead character, Frannie, would get visited by the ghost of the dead contestant. The purpose of the ghost was to push Frannie to take her efforts to win too far.

I wrote three wildly different songs for the ghost to try and make the moment work, and it just didn’t. One was a country rock, Carrie Underwood “Before He Cheats”, type song. One was playing with the idea that she was both the ghost and the devil, so half the song is in sweet little girl voice, and then the other half is this devil voice coming out to say terrible things (ala Hand to God). Then the last one was very poppy, upbeat, and patriotic sounding while the lyrics were about moments in history where people did terrible things to get ahead. They came and they went.

You didn’t ask, but I am thrilled that the Twin Cities has slowly been developing a new musical theater scene. You have the History Theatre and Theater Latté Da leading the pack, but other theaters are trying, which is really cool. (I am a musical nerd. I spend hours scouring for videos and cast recordings, whether they are of big commercial shows or obscure pieces.)

This show is very much in the contemporary musical theater vein. New musicals can be a terrifying endeavor. So many pieces have to go right, like a complex puzzle. And then the added cost of development and a band, as well as trying to get audiences to take a chance on songs they have never heard before. But when the right lyric and the right melody and the right moment combine, there is nothing like it.

The show is absurd and irreverent and heartfelt – and I hope audiences enjoy it.

Dance-off! L-R: Kelly Houlehan (as Frannie Foster Wallace), Ryan London Levin (as Liam Ackermann), and Leslie Vincent (Valerie Hutchinson, the titular pageant’s 1996 Queen). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant is currently in previews at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. The show formally opens Friday, June 21.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.
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