Twisted and Delicious: Sinking my teeth into Michael R Jackson and Anna K Jacobs’ Teeth

Issue Seven: Teeth
Jessica Huang
March 27, 2024
Jessica Huang

Jessica Huang is a playwright and librettist whose work includes: Blended 和 (Harmony): The Kim Loo Sisters (with composer Jacinth Greywoode), Mother of Exiles (Venturous Award, Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award), The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin (Bernice Stavis Award), and Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying (EMOS Ecodrama prize). Her popular audioplay Song of the Northwoods is available on Audible. She is developing an original television show with WBTV. Jessica is a Venturous Playwright Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center, a MacDowell Fellow, Hermitage Fellow and four-time Playwrights' Center fellow, and has been a member of Ars Nova Play Group, Civilians R&D Group and Page 73's Interstate 73. She is a graduate of the Playwrights Program at Juilliard. More:

I saw the 2007 Mitchell Lichtenstein film Teeth in college. I was living in off-campus housing in Columbia, Missouri, in a yellow bungalow that cost $550 a month — split between three roommates — that for one of those months had a literal hole in the floor, and for all of those months had marching band practice at 7am in the empty lot next door. Teeth was around the time we used a homemade flamethrower to solve our boxelder bug problem. The film was gory, campy, weirdly paced and surprisingly feminist, and lived alongside Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Con Air as essential viewing for our wry, sophomoric, gleeful collective taste.

Teeth the musical was exactly as much fun as you’d expect when you invite Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs to apply their arsenal of talents to the horror comedy. Teen leader of the evangelical Promise Keeper Girls Dawn O’Keefe (a nuanced and powerful Alyse Alan Louis) is a paragon of purity in a community of young Christians with sexualities so suppressed that a visit to the gynecologist is sacrilege. But Dawn has a gift and a curse, Vagina Dentata, that rears its lethal teeth to defend her against a series of violations — expertly staged by director Sarah Benson and Intimacy Director Crista Marie Jackson — and sets her on a path of vengeance.

The show was great. I laughed, I screamed, I scream-laughed. I got my period (truly, sorry, TMI). If in the two-hour intermission-less production there was perhaps one song too many — a repeated beat when ‘I’m Your Guy’ follows ‘According to the Wiki’ comes to mind, though Jared Loftin as Ryan was truly spectacular in both numbers — it was quickly and completely forgiven by the smart storytelling, wonderful performances, ever-surprising staging and abundance of bloody prosthetics.

I saw the show while in the trenches of (or contractions for) birthing my own musical, one I’ve been writing with composer Jacinth Greywoode for five years. I’m currently in that phase of terror-focus as we complete last minute restructures and revisions and put the finishing touches on songs before we go into rehearsal next week. It’s the perfect time to receive an offering like Teeth — which, while existing in a polar opposite tonal universe, is still as Jakobs said “a pretty traditional book musical,” and a master class in tone, craft and collaboration.

It was a joy to share a conversation with the creators about their process, philosophies on horror and working with their creative collaborators to find a tasteful amount of blood and phalluses for the show.

Steven Pasquale and others in Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry.

Jessica Huang: What were the unifying, overarching themes and code phrases you would tell each other to keep you writing the same show?

Michael R. Jackson: I had this epiphany that the show is about the battle between shame and desire. Essentially every character in the musical is dealing with the same conflict within themselves — it just manifests in different ways.

Anna K. Jacobs: Yeah. Another thing that's really important to us is the theme of ideology, and how it can be very constrictive to a person's capacity to authentically express themselves.  We discovered  how important that theme was to us throughout the preview process, when we were changing our ending.

JH: I’d love to know about what the journey was like to find the ending.

AKJ: All through the rehearsal process and tech, we had a completely different ending with a song that no longer exists called ‘I Want to Choose.’  It felt like an epilogue. We jump forward 10,000 years and humankind no longer has genitals. The genitals have been annihilated. They have no pleasure anymore. They also have no pain anymore.

MRJ: They’re numb. They're numb like Brad's finger.

AKJ: And then Michael and I had an 11th-hour come to Jesus moment. We're like, ‘Take Me Down’ is the ending and there’s a way to expand this moment to create a more satisfying ending.

MRJ: A horror ending.

AKJ: I also realized  — despite how unconventional some of the content of the show is in terms of the topics or the gruesomeness, the fact remains that the construction of the show is pretty traditional, and Dentata is such a traditional 11:00 number, but it wasn't in the 11:00 spot.  We sat at the West Bank one night, had a drink and re-conceived the ending. We put it in the next day and we were like *relief.*

JH: You both create works solo — writing book, music and lyrics — how did you decide who is doing what, and how did that grow and change during the course of making the show?

MRJ: It was an organic decision from the beginning, especially given what the movie was and that we were going to be translating into stage — I think it just made sense that we were collaborating on the book and shaping it together. I write most of the words, but the story had to have two minds figuring out the tone, the style. Anna's music is so dramatic and dramaturgical and the music as a whole has its own structural integrity that is embedded in the book. I can't imagine any version of that that wouldn't be her sharing book writing duties with me.

AKJ:  At the same time, Michael is such a strong musician that when he's writing lyrics, he's writing music anyway. I can recognize where he is using repetition, what type of style of music he's referencing…. and I attempt to tap into that.

JH: Do you usually start with words and then move into melody?

AKJ: We start with a long conversation about what we want the moment to be, how we want it to function, what it needs to cover. Then we share inspiration — email each other songs via YouTube or Spotify or whatever, and we research. Usually after that Michael will write lyrics, though rarely a whole lyric. Usually, it's just a section of the song and he sends it to me. I set it and send it back. Then he'll go on and write more lyrics and I'll go on and set that. It's sort of a ping pong process.

JH: I love the musical world building that was happening. I feel like I was hearing church choirs that transformed into madrigal, Renaissance singers and also this amazing, heavy metal sound. What musical worlds were you interested in? What were you playing around with?

AKJ: I think big picture when I'm creating a score and architecturally. Early on in the process I like to introduce rules for myself. In the case of this show, we had a sense early on that we wanted it to start in a more real place and end up in a heightened mythological place. So, I was like, what if for the earliest songs, I restrict myself to writing on guitar, because then my harmonic language is limited in a certain way, and stylistically I'm being more authentic to this Christian rock pop.  Then by the end (of the show) I'm using piano, my primary instrument, which I have a very extended vocabulary for, and I can go really heightened with it. And then it was just a question of how do we navigate between those two points?  There were moments where we were very consciously referencing certain styles and genres, and then other moments where we just intuitively found our way into those decisions.

JH: Do you have a favorite song?

AKJ: Dentata. The expression specifically of female rage is so exciting to me. I seek it out everywhere because I'm so bad at expressing it myself.

MRJ: I obviously love Dentata so much but I think one of the ones that just always really gets me is ‘Always the Woman.’ I love that song so much. I love the way Alyse [Alan Louis] delivers it.

AKJ: It’s also one of the last songs we wrote for the show.

JH: What were the sticky things over the years? The tough nuts to crack?

MRJ: The tone.

AKJ: Yeah, the tone and also the pressure to write to the moment, especially when we were working on it during the height of #metoo. We really felt the need to resist writing in too much of a specific way to what was going on around us and to be able to find something more universal and timeless.

MRJ: Every time you try to meet the moment, the moment passes. Things are always changing. ith this show, which is on one level is very easy to market as female empowerment — and there's an element of that for sure — but there is still a story with characters who pursue something and there are consequences for their actions.  You can't just hitch that to any moment. You can't just sayt it will deliver a #metoo comeuppance or that will deliver patriarchal dismantling. We had to understand what we had made and how that speaks to something larger and ongoing than the moment. That's part of why we really landed on ideology. It's the thing that animates almost every character. I mean, in addition to the shame and desire, the ideology is the container they all are grabbing for, and that pushes them along. A lot of that ideology leads to violence, which is the delivery system for the horror.  That is something that's bigger than that moment.

JH: You said that tone was another tricky thing. I feel like this world where ideology leads to violence — which I do think reflects the world we live in now — was where tone was vibrating the most excitingly for me.

AKJ: It took us so long to figure out what story we wanted to tell. We had the source material, but Mitchell Lichtenstein, the writer-director, was also extremely generous in letting us do what we needed to do with it, which led us down so many pathways. Each pathway was attached to a different type of tone. Some were dark and serious and some extremely comedic pushing on camp. And as we cemented the production draft, we continued to lean more into the horror of the piece, and that seemed to tie a lot of elements together in a satisfying way. A big part of that was finally we were working towards the production instead of a reading. So, we were having conversations with our director and choreographer about how is sex depicted? How are the emasculations depicted? What type of blood is it? [How big are the] blood bags? How much blood, fire? All of the elements that actually brought the horror to the front of the production became explicit. That also impacted decision making around story refinement and tone refinement.

Jared Loftin and Alyse Alan Louis in Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry.

JH: I'm so curious for (Jackson) a lover of horror and then (Jacobs) somebody who's a little more squeamish, what does horror mean to you?

MRJ: Horror is about when something you're afraid of comes true. When the character's fear actually comes to light. I'm really into the catharsis of that and the way that can help an audience reflect on our own dark shadow. Because a lot of times in horror movies, it's kind of a tragedy. A character caused it to happen in some way because of a flaw within them or because of a belief system they have. I'm into horror being a genre that can aid humanity in a way by having this sort of purging of the fear and or being consumed by it as a cautionary tale, which is what I think of our version of Teeth does.

AKJ: I’m terrified by horror. One thing that's just not a possibility for me is to sit and watch a horror movie by myself. I get too afraid -

MRJ: I do that all the time.

AKJ: - so, my experience of horror has been more about the experience of being with other people and being brought closer to them by being terrified by the same stuff. Like when you go on a scary ride at a fun-park. Thinking about that makes me think about why I enjoy sitting in the audience at Teeth so much. Because for me, it's so much about having shared reactions at the same time to the same stuff.

JH: My favorite moment was the one distinctly female-sounding scream-laugh at the gynecologist’s office.

MRJ: It's so funny about that moment because while I am a teen evangelical with teeth in her vagina spiritually, I’ve not actually been to a gynecologist, but I’ve always had this sense in that moment that there's something that happens in these offices that folks can really relate to. It's probably its own kind of horror—

JH: Yes, it sure is

MRJ: That some of the audience doesn't have full access to, which I think it's kind of exciting. To me the show is horrors within horrors within horrors. But some of them are more personal, like all the moments when characters are caught doing things that fill them with shame. Everyone's worst fears about their sexuality are exposed and revealed.

JH: Was there any moment of discovery in the rehearsal process that came out of this particular group of people being in the room together?

AKJ: I mean, I would say the individual identities of the six Promise Keeper girls were so honed throughout this process.

MRJ: Oh yeah.

AKJ: Because of the actors playing them and also because of Enver (Chakartash), our costume designer. When I was imagining the costuming I thought the PKGs would have one naturalistic outfit and then something for Dentata. I didn't realize that they would change costumes every single scene. And I came to realize how much Enver’s process is about helping people find the souls of their characters with they're wearing, even the wigs they were wearing went a great distance with that as well. So, so that was sort of epic for me.

MRJ: And our special effects. Because Sarah asked us about them and I just hadn’t really thought about it that deeply because we were wedded to the music stand for years and I was like, oh, yeah, fire! Oh, right, water! And all those things raise the stakes of what we were making the whole time. So, I feel so indebted to everyone in this whole company for doing such detailed beautiful daring work!

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