Lookingglass Theatre, the ensemble-based company located in the Water Tower Water Works in Chicago, is back in full force with new productions in 2023. Following revivals of several pre-pandemic shows in 2021–22, the theater premiered a new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette, in February. Currently, Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, an original musical written and composed by artistic associate Matthew C. Yee, is running until July 16.
New works have long been Lookingglass’s strong suit; the company has premiered 57 plays and 11 musicals in its 35-year history. Ensemble member Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, an adaptation of Ovid’s myths staged in a pool of water, transferred to Broadway and won Zimmerman a Tony Award for best direction in 2002. Many of the theater’s other notable premieres similarly draw from classic literature, including the often-revived Lookingglass Alice, ensemble member David Catlin’s circus-inspired version of Lewis Carroll’s tales.
In Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, however, audiences encounter completely fresh material. The musical is a comedic trek across the United States with an aspiring Bonnie and Clyde, featuring original country western and folk songs. The titular characters, who are both children of Chinese American immigrants, rebel against “the myth of the model minority” by emulating “what they think is the American way, which is embracing chaos and violence and greed,” says Yee. But when Lucy and Charlie rob a gas station to fund their honeymoon, they find that living as outlaws is quite different from their romanticized vision.
“I was really interested in creating a theater piece for Asian American voices and Asian American actors that was a less traditional version of the Asian American voice that we’ve had in the past,” Yee explains. “I wanted it to be really fun and comedic and a little zany and a little wild, with music throughout.”
He cites as inspiration two plays in which he has appeared as an actor: Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band and Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone. The former features songs by Dengue Fever and played at Victory Gardens Theater in 2019. “It was an actor-musician show with an Asian American cast, and I had never seen that before,” says Yee. Vietgone, which Writers Theatre produced in 2018, is a rom-com about Vietnamese refugees, another type of show Yee had never experienced before.
For Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, Yee composed a score in the genre of country western and Americana, a style he grew up with and still loves to perform. “Traditionally, this genre has belonged to white American culture in an insular way,” he says, “so to have a group of Asian American actors playing this music together is special.”
When Lookingglass approached Amanda Dehnert to direct Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, she was immediately drawn to Yee’s script. “It was the freshest, smartest, funniest, baddest musical I’ve read in ages,” she recalls. Dehnert is no stranger to shepherding new works to the stage at Lookingglass. In 2012, she directed and orchestrated the score for Eastland, a new musical about the 1915 capsizing of a passenger ship in the Chicago River. She also wrote and directed a new adaptation of Peter Pan in 2010 and co-composed the music for The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a 2018 world premiere that has since been revived twice.
When asked what she enjoys about working on world premieres, Dehnert says, “It’s great to get to be a part of the writer’s vision and get their story out in front.” She acknowledges that new musicals present unique challenges; it takes a lot of work to get all the storytelling components just right to have the maximum impact on the audience. Dehnert derives great personal gratification in working to “get inside the writer’s head and try to have that vision come alive.”
Yee considers Lookingglass an ideal home for his show’s premiere, citing the company’s collaborative approach, which he experienced as an actor in its productions Treasure Island and Moby Dick.
“The understanding of the importance of ensemble theater is really, really strong at Lookingglass,” he says. “It makes space for less ego, and more camaraderie and collaboration.”
Due to pandemic-related delays, Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon has had a longer development period than expected. Following a staged reading at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2019, Lookingglass initially planned to produce the show in February 2022, then changed that date to the fall of 2022 and, finally, May 2023. Although it was difficult to wait so long, Yee says the delays allowed him to continue refining the script. “I’m so glad I had that time because I’ve changed a lot. Especially going through COVID like everybody else, there were just things that happened to me that have changed who I am and changed my perspective,” he shares.
Ultimately, Yee hopes that audiences will come away with a new experience of Asian American stories in theater. “I want it to break all of their stereotypes of what a play about identity, or what it means to be Asian American, is,” he says. “I want this to be kind of wild and a little crass and sexy, which isn’t something that you always get in plays about AAPI characters.”