Photo: Russ Rowland

Sean Patrick Monahan developed the characters and the book for a clever, campy new one-man musical called Diva: Live From Hell. The show, blending elements of both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, details the exploits of Desmond Channing, a high school drama student whose rivalry with another drama club member takes on extraordinary proportions.

Movie buffs would get the conflation in Desmond Channing’s name, and in a deft touch, the show is set in a high school named for Ronald Reagan, who was of course himself at one time an actor. The musical, with score and lyrics by Alexander Sage Oyen, is currently playing in New York.

We recently spoke with Monahan about his show, which dated back to 2013 when its initial 45 minute version was submitted to a playwriting contest and won several awards.

Q: Was this play a reflection of your experience in a high school drama club?

Sean Patrick Monahan: Yes, it was, and I didn’t realize how much it was when I wrote it. The events in the play are obviously a very extreme version of what a normal drama club experience would have been. When I set out to write it, I was looking for more of a parody-type show, like Charles Busch or Charles Webb might have written.

Diva is basically a mash-up of the plots of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve set in a high school drama club. Since I had those works that I was sort of inspired by, it didn’t occur to me how much I was writing from my own reflections from high school until I was in rehearsal with it everyday over the past couple of months.

Q: How would you describe the origins of Diva?

Monahan: About 10 months [after its initial run], I was approached by a composer/lyricist Alexander Sage Oyen, and he had seen the show and he asked if I had any interest in developing it further into a real musical and solo piece. I knew he was a prodigious up and coming composer and I said yes…From there [director] Danny Goldstein expressed interest…

We did some workshops for a much earlier version of the show in 2015 and we spent a lot of the last year getting together and doing everything we needed to do for the production. And here we are after all that time,  and we finally opened the full production at Theater for the New City.

I have been very lucky in working on this production in that there wasn’t much drama other than what was in the show. Everyone has taken the piece so seriously and worked so hard on it, and it has really been delightful how well we have all worked together. I feel like I really hit the jackpot.

Q: How do you maintain energy level in a solo 90 minute performance?

Monahan: It’s not daunting at all. It’s sort of like I push a button, I go out and I do it. The crazy thing is at the end of each performance I don’t feel tired or exhausted at all. The actual show itself is so energizing that I am ready to do it again. We have had such great audiences. There is a lot of wonderful energy being turned back to me. I get out there and in some ways it’s just automatic. I have been developing the show for so long, I know these characters so well. I know how they sound, how they move, so there’s not a lot for me to think about anymore.

And sometimes I will go through an entire section of the play – 10 or 15 minutes of it, and then I will sort of almost wake up and I realize – Oh, I am Sean Patrick Monahan and here I am at Theater for the New City and I am doing this. – It just goes by so quickly that there is no time for me to think about the physical toll or energy that I am expending to do it. It goes by so fast for me.

Q: Your ability to successfully mimic a variety of different characters involved in the story is great. Do you enjoy that?

Monahan: When I was a kid I was obsessed with the Forbidden Broadway act. I received on my 11th birthday recordings of the first four installments of the show. I thought they were so funny. I loved the mimicked voices that people would create. I started doing impressions of my favorite musical theater personalities. This show is the play where I really developed my characters for the first time. I love the opportunity to play multiple parts in one show. It’s a lot of fun and makes me stay engaged over the course of the 90 minutes.

Q: What are some philosophical aspects of the musical?

Monahan: There is a new bit that I wrote only in the last week which is placed at the very end of the show, where Desmond is reflecting on how you can talk through something as much as you want. But until you take responsibility and acknowledge that you are the problem or at least partly responsible for your own failures and frustrations, then you are never really going to grow. I feel like that’s what this show was for me in a lot of ways – owning up to my own flaws and responsibilities. Because when you are a teenager, its OK to say, “Woe is me,” and “Why is the world out to get me?” and “What have I done to deserve this?”

I feel like I have spent one year revisiting my high school drama club experience and I have only just figured out what my flaws and problems were at the time, and how I have grown from them and can continue to grow from them.

Q: Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about Diva?

Monahan: If I were to give an elevator pitch for the show, its nostalgic in a lot of different ways. It looks back on a younger and adolescent time in life. I am also very proud of the fact that the form that we’re doing of this campy, weird, dark solo musical is nostalgic for the work that audiences would have seen more frequently and commonly 20 or 30 years ago in theaters in the East and West Village. I think that a lot of people will have missed seeing that type of work. I am trying to harken back to the work of another time, and I think a lot of people will really enjoy that.

Diva: Live From Hell is playing at Theater for the New City at 155 First Avenue in Manhattan through Sunday April 9.

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