Daniel Levin may have written a musical about the world of 1980s competitive aerobics, but he’s not all fun, games, and carefully-choreographed pushup circles. We sat down with the NYU Tisch alum and veteran drama writer to learn about his beginnings on VHS, his partnership with Crunch, and his feelings about his new neighborhood.
What first got you interested in writing plays?
My family would come to New York when I was a kid, and I remember seeing The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Chorus Line. My dad loved Sondheim. We would always listen to Company, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, Evita. We’re sort of a showtune kind of household. I also loved Les Mis, and my friend Mike and I would go to senior citizens homes with our friends and would put on these very illegal renditions of it with really horrible British accents. It’s on VHS somewhere. It’s hard to watch.
I wrote and directed a play my senior year of college, and it was exhilarating even though some of it was terrible, mortifying, exposed stuff on stage, and I just wanted to hide… it was just this totally different feeling. I felt like I could never get bored, like I could always move onto my next subject, so it became unavoidable. A few years later, I found out about the NYU Tisch grad program for musical theater writing. The play I’d written wasn’t a musical, but it had some music in it, and I just thought about what in my life I’d been the most passionate about.
I always drew a lot, and I was in plays in high school… and theater is just so much more interactive, it’s more social, it’s a communal experience… which I didn’t feel in the visual arts. I thought if I was going to be an artist, I wanted to do it in theatre. Seeing a great drawing up on a wall isn’t like seeing a live production with people responding and reacting. Being on stage doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as being behind the scenes. I love the creative power of being the person who sets it all in motion.
When I was at the Spandex auditions–and this isn’t La Traviata, this is Spandex–I was looking around the room just thinking, “All of these people are here because of my and my friend Annie’s idea.” That’s ridiculous, that all of these people in the middle of the day are taking off work and want to be in the show. I like being the creative force that launched that.
What were you thinking the first time you saw the 1987 Crystal Light National Aerobics Championship, and how did that inform what the show turned out to be?
I had just finished Hee Haw: It’s A Wonderful Lie, and I was sending letters to theaters all over the country trying to get them interested in the script, but there was a lot of negativity and sadness in that show… and I love that, but financially, I didn’t really know what to do with that play. Annie showed me the video, and we were just cracking up–they were so earnest, and it had that good element that’s kind of like A Chorus Line, where you kind of laugh at them, but you also totally feel for them because they’re just going for it. The humor of it and the heart of it were both there, and Annie said, “Why is this not a musical?” Initially, I just didn’t think it was my kind of show… but the more we started to talk about it, I thought about Rock of Ages, and how I’d enjoyed it even if it wasn’t the original musical theater I’d been trained to do. I thought, instead of the hair bands, we could have the aerobics thing.
So I told Annie that I was ready to do something fun like this, something commercial hopefully, something that makes people laugh but also has heart so it’s not just totally fluff, and I asked her to write it with me.
How long have you been in New York, and how has that affected your writing?
I’m from DC originally, and I moved up for NYU in 2000. I lived on the Lower East Side until 2006, and Park Slope until 2010, and then Brooklyn Heights, and just moved to Ditmas Park about four and a half months ago and had a baby. I had friends who were moving into the neighborhood, so even before I really knew Brooklyn, I knew Ditmas Park.
When I was in Park Slope it was a lot of new babies, and I was single, and in that way I didn’t fit in. Ditmas Park is different because I have a baby now, and it seems like so does every family in our building. It’s good and bad–I like being the outsider, because I can write more interesting things. I have mixed feelings about fitting in–there’s a part of me that really fights against that.
I haven’t been in a real writing stage since moving here, because I’m in such a producing mode right now, networking, trying to get sponsors, indiegogo-campaigning, and it’s hard to ask your friends for money… you think, why is my dream worth other people taking their money and giving it to me? It’s a hard decision.
I’ll be curious to see what happens when I start getting back to writing, how the neighborhood will feel, how having a little more room in Ditmas Park will feel, how having a baby will feel… it’s a human thing, and while it obviously takes some time, it frees some time too. I guess the bottom line is, I’ve been so manic and frenetic with the show that I haven’t really gotten a chance to feel what it’s like to write here. But in general, Ditmas Park has been more calming for me than Brooklyn Heights or the Lower East Side, and I appreciate that.
Fill in the blank: You should see Spandex if __________.
- You need a good laugh.
- You’ve ever been afraid to do something, or not done something because you’re afraid of it–you’re going to watch people kind of break out from that fear.
- You think you don’t like this kind of ’80s, fun, over-the-top kind of musical. I would probably never see Spandex, and I wrote the thing.
- You’ve seen the YouTube 1987 Crystal Light National Aerobics Championships and you enjoyed it. If you like that video, you will love Spandex.
“I think people are gonna come in thinking, fun, over-the-top, tights… they’re gonna come for the tights, they’re gonna stay for the heart,” says Daniel, always the wordsmith. Luckily for lovers of both, you can still buy tickets to see Spandex at 777 Theater from May 10-May 26.
Top photo via Spandex the Musical
Photo of Natalie Bird by Sheila Phalon