By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
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"All my life I've been a chameleon, and all my life I've been rather bubbly," Kirsten Childs reports. She's explaining how she came to write The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, the highly anticipated musical now previewing at Playwrights Horizons after a series of splashy workshops. The title of this quasi-autobiographical work is a mouthful, because the fortyish Childs has plenty to unload about her experiences so far.
"Living my life in California as a little black girl was so difficult, because you had to be schizophrenic," Childs explains, nursing a tall coffee at Drip on the Upper West Side. "You had to be one kind of personality with one person, another kind of personality with someone else. And yet you had to act like that was normal, you had to keep quiet about it. So I wanted to say that so badly for so long, and I was so afraid that nobody would understand."
To Childs's surprise and gratification, those who've watched her ebullient project develop over the past five yearsfrom a few songs to a 30-minute performance piece to an intermissionless 90-minute musical playhave not only understood it thoroughly but cheered it on. Among the appreciative contingent have been Ellie Covan at Dixon Place, Gordon Greenberg at Musical Theatre Works, and Lee Johnson at the Manhattan Theatre Club, as well as numerous prize-giving committees. In the past two years, Childs has won awards totaling a remarkable $185,000the Richard Rodgers Development Award, the Richard Rodgers Production Award, the Jonathan Larson Grant, the Edward Kleban Award, a Rockefeller grant.
"That's why I don't have to go back to temping," Childs says of the loot that's enabling her to confront her troubled past through song and dance. As a performer she started out in modern dance, then switched to Broadway as a Bob Fosse dancer, though she eventually gave up dancing in the '80s. As a lyricist she has long written with her jazz musician brother, Billy Childs. She claims she's always heard her own melodies when writing words, and credits Fred Carl, now the musical director for Bubbly, with her change into a full-fledged lyricist-composer. In the early '90s, when they were both students in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU, Carl asked, "If you hear this music in your head, why don't you ever try to duplicate it, get it out in the world?"
Now, Childs has freed the head tunes, composing complex, often fuguelike melodies on which to perch sometimes frothy, more often biting words about how she finally got to the nitty-gritty of her identity. "The girl wants to be a dancing star," Childs says of her discontented heroine, Bubbly. "So that's her goal, and she does everything in her power to obtain that goal. And then she finds out that what she really wants is something completely different." Following this trajectory, Bubbly progresses from a young girl playing with her Chitty Chatty doll (changed from Chatty Cathy to avoid legal entanglements) to a college activist to a dancer for a Fosse-like choreographer to a mature woman who knows her mind.
While mastering the rudiments of composingshe says her influences range from Bach to Laura Nyro, from Handel to Marvin GayeChilds has also had to refine her libretto. This has meant coming to terms with herself in unexpected ways. "It's the hardest thing to hear a critique about a show that's so personal. It's your life, but at the same time you want it to work as a musical. . . . To hear somebody say, 'This isn't working for me' is not good. You have to go to therapy. I have to make sure I'm not hearing that I'mnot good personally." So writing Bubbly drove her to a shrink. Does she still go? "Oh, my God, yes."
Thrilled with the Playwrights Horizons production, which features LaChanze and the guidance of artistic director Tim Sanford, Childs is also ecstatic about her 13-member cast, and glad to be mentioned among the new breed of emerging musical writerspeople like Adam Geuttel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, and Jenny Giering. She's quick to answer Cassandras predicting the demise of the musical. "You want to know what I say to those people? If they think the musical's dead, then long live the musical theater." About her newfound composing abilities, she couldn't be more enthusiastic. "Shoot, I'm good now," she bubbles.