“Different Stars” is that gem of musical theater that you would find in a comfy off-Broadway house tucked in the heart of New York City. It is the type of production with the heart, intimacy, and musical nuances that an avid theatergoer eats up, delighted to have personally discovered the next Sondheim.
On Saturday Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. EST, the premiere performance beams from differentstars.live. It is free, and any donations given are used to support QORDS, a music-centered camp for queer and transgender youth ages 12-17 in the South.
“Different Stars” is both about our lives re-imagined under COVID-quarantine as well as the re-imagining of theater itself under those conditions.
The story revolves around James, played by renowned actor James Jackson Jr. of Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Strange Loop” fame, a songwriter who has hit a block because of his romantic trauma. Caught in the isolation of a COVID-19 quarantine, he goes through a box of artifacts that conjure up the ghosts and characters from his first queer love gone awry.
This week, I sat down with show creator Karl Saint Lucy, director Raquel Cion and star James Jackson Jr. on the award-winning podcast Rated LGBT Radio. They shared their thoughts and experiences of being part of this new and medium-busting phenomenon.
The story behind the songs and book of “Different Stars” has evolved, been developed, and reached refinement over time. Karl related their journey: “I moved to New York from Oklahoma in 2010. During my second year in New York, I fell in love. He was my first exposure to queer people, my first gay friend. We were close—best, best friends. Then we became lovers. We dated for months. It was crazy and intense. I felt like I had escaped what I had grown up under. Wow. I was finally in a place I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do. And I have this man I am in love with.”
Karl continued, “Then it deteriorated so tragically over the next nine months. It was extremely dramatic. I was in the middle of writing a 90-minute musical. I was so hurt, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I would go into a room and cry and write a new song. I ended up writing 40 songs. Originally, they were songs to him, but they evolved into songs of me having a dialogue with myself. I did not really have a vision for them. He was my intended audience.”
In 2013, the songs were finally performed as part of a workshop. The audience’s deep and emotional reaction told Karl that the song collection was not just for or about him anymore. “After this one performance, an actress, who was at that time playing Mary Magdalene at a summer theatre session Glow Lyric Theatre caught up with me. She had tears streaming down her face. ‘You read my journal’, she exclaimed.”
Karl had a vision to make the song collection into a theatrical piece. Along with director Raquel Cion, he planned to do that in March 2020.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Karl and Raquel closed the production nine days before they were scheduled to open. Soon they were deciding that if the quarantine had re-imagined their lives, they could re-imagine theater. Raquel knew the theatrical process itself had to be addressed and created anew. She related her experience having to direct it – in a way she had never done before, “This has been so very strange, to not be in the same room as the cast. I only met James in person once. It was odd and brand new. We had to address our aesthetic and not our obstacles. Putting it together was challenging and exciting. The performers are so capable and skilled. Their emotional journeys are exquisite—so present and willing.”
As for bringing COVID into the story itself, “How does my art address the moment we are in?” Karl pondered. “We decided to develop a story around the quarantine. We looked at our actor, James Jackson Jr. and built the show around his character, James, as the lead character.”
James was undaunted at the prospect. He had launched original characters before, and he knew he could take a character essentially based on Karl and make it his own. While James playing a character who was based on real-life Karl was not a challenge, the same could not be said for the actor who was chosen to play the character based on Karl’s heartbreaking ex — that actor would be Karl himself. Karl shared, “In retrospect, his experience was not all that different than mine. I think that is one of the things so scary about intimacy. When relationships end, it is two people amid profound grief, and they cannot share it with each other. I think the words I wrote from me to him also work the other way around. Saying them to the character that is supposed to be me, is essentially therapeutic.”
Karl’s reflection on his painful past is at the core of the title “Different Stars.” It took him to the realization that his life was not necessarily about what he could have done differently, but rather, what life would have been if the situation had been different. Poetically, what a couple’s love would have been had it taken place under “different stars.” The theme is emphasized by the play’s quarantine setting where the character goes from dreading isolation to embracing the unique gift of reflection.
Raquel mused on the theatrical situation itself, “This experience reminds me of something David Bowie said—paraphrasing: Always go further into the water than you feel capable of being in, a little bit out of your depths and when you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, then, and only then, are you in just about the right place to experience something exciting.”
With that said, on Saturday, Aug. 15, you can wade into your watching habits a little bit beyond. You can welcome a moving piece of off-Broadway into your home and enjoy an evening under “Different Stars.”