By Sharon Eberson
An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake took a long and twisty route to arrive where it started, but it is finally ready for its close-up.
Yes, that Justin Timberlake. And no, the pop star did not write the new work that is in previews starting Saturday and premiering December 3 at City Theatre.
There have been several title changes to the musical that began as a play with some music. But the title that finally stuck is the one on the Matt Schatz script that was read by City’s Clare Drobot, now a co-artistic director, and Reginald Douglas.
City also helped to develop and premiere another Schatz play, The Burdens, but Douglas and Drobot weren’t ready to let go of the one with Justin Timberlake in the title.
“I said to Clare, ‘This needs to be a musical,’ ” Douglas recalled. “The emotions are a size larger than a play structure can contain.”
Douglas is in his second job since leaving City, newly named the artistic director of Mosaic Theater in D.C. He is back in Pittsburgh as a director, seeing Untitled through to its premiere.
Returning as a guest artist was like “coming back home with my ruby red slippers,” Douglas said, even though it has been a whirlwind, traveling back and forth between his job in D.C. and Pittsburgh.
An Untitled New Play by … you-know-who already had two songs before Schatz was asked, “Would you be game to make this into a musical?”
He was, and the process moved forward with haste.
“Matt is one of the fastest writers anywhere,” Douglas said. “It helped that he is both a composer and writes the lyrics, and it was no time before he had flushed it out.”
The playwright and songwriter, a New Jersey native who earned his MFA at Carnegie Mellon, these days is living and working in LA. With stage and screen projects such as his true-crime musical A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill at Geffen Playhouse and Taika Waititi’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Netflix animation.
Just as the pandemic hit, Schatz became a father, and his musical’s previous premiere date was canceled.
At the time, the “Untitled” musical had been further developed through City’s collaboration with Pittsburgh CLO at the 2018 SPARKS Festival of small-play development (the musical is a four-hander).
A production was on CLO Cabaret’s schedule, set to open April 3, 2020, with Julianne Avolio as dramaturg Beth, Melessie Clark as Liz Cohen, Lara Hayhurst as El, and Craig MacDonald as Todd-Michael Smyth
Although that production never happened, all are back for the City Theatre premiere.
Schatz, who had another musical (Where Ever It May Be) in development through CLO and SPARKS, is grateful to have worked with two “brilliant’ dramaturgs — CLO’s Olivia O’Connor and City’s Drobot — on the show at hand, which he described as “a different kind of show” for CLO to produce, because of strong language and adult themes.
And then there was that name in Untitled’s title.
Schatz could have picked any number of celebrities with a high Q rating, a representation of a free pass to the front of the line.
Schatz began work on Untitled and The Burdens in 2016 while participating in a LA playwrights group. Under a time constraint, “I wrote about things I knew. ‘The Burdens’ is about my family, and this one is about my job.”
An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake is a behind-the-scenes look at the folks who make theater tick: the dramaturgs and gatekeepers who choose new works to be developed, and decisions based on uplifting new talent or the lure of a marquee name.
We get to know dramaturg Beth early on, through the song, “Do Good Work, Do Good Plays.” It’s a philosophy that can put her at odds with her boss’s dual purpose: do good work but also sell tickets.
Schatz wasn’t particularly concerned about using a real celebrity’s name — he mentioned other plays, such as All the Natalie Portmans, which was playing at MCC Theater in New York when the pandemic hit.
“I did it with the assumption that he is a public figure, but really, he’s a representation of all celebrities. It’s not really about him,” Schatz said.
However, when the show was headed to CLO, “they had lawyers look at it and decided it was a little risky for them, so it went through a few different titles.”
One of the playwright’s ideas included an obscenity, and it didn’t go over well. At one point, it was just Timberlake and then Untitled. There also was a time when, throughout the play, the character was referred to as “Justin” only.
“I made my peace with it,” Schatz said. “Then, when it ended up being at City, Marc Masterson called me and said, ‘We’re going to do it, and we’re going to use the original title.’ “
Perhaps knowing its roots would put any concerns in perspective.
It comes in part from a tweet — made by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York — about developing an untitled new play by Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated Social Network actor. Schatz went on to meet Eisenberg at a 24-hour-play workshop where they both wrote songs (“His was better than mine,” Schatz said), and the actor-playwright was “very nice” to Schatz’s starstruck wife.
So in case, Justin Timberlake is tuning in, the inspiration has a rather sweet origin story.
The way Douglas sees it, the musical opening in previews on Saturday at City Theatre is a rather sweet Pittsburgh theater story.
“You have two Pittsburgh companies working together to help explore a musical idea,” he said. “For City to collaborate with Pittsburgh CLO, the people who do musicals best in town, and have City premiere a show centered on their mission to develop new plays, that’s a dream come true for all parties.”
Matt Schatz has a personal reason to be excited that the show will be premiering with its original title, in the place where its transformation began.
“My wife and I had a baby in March 2020, so I don’t know if I would have been able to see the CLO show that was going to be in April,” he said. “In most ways, this pandemic has been horrible for theater, but in some ways, I can find a silver lining. So I’m excited to be coming to City Theatre and be in that space. I can’t wait to see it.”
Untiled runs November 27th to December 19th. For more information and to order tickets visit: https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/an-untitled-new-play-by-justin-timberlake/