When The Playground – A Street Rock Musical opens at the MET Theatre tonight, it will be another step in an ongoing odyssey that writer/director Michael Leoni began in 2001. “Basically this started in New York City, right after 9/11, when I was almost homeless myself,” Leoni says. “I started creating all these stories from kids I was talking to, who were out on the streets with nowhere to go. I became more and more involved with them, writing down what they told me. At the time, I had no idea where it was going to lead me.”
Leoni began his career in Boston, staging such musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and Falsettos.Â He received recognition when he staged his original works Wanted, City of Dreams, and Omerta. After moving to New York City, he wrote, directed, and produced Enigma and Deviants. Â He also staged the Off-Broadway run of LOUD, an original rock musical, earning several nominations at the NYC Fringe Festival.Â In 2004, he made the move to LA.
“I met Michael around that time, when I came to LA from New York to do theater,” says producer Michelle Kaufer, who had previously co-founded Wynner’s Circle Theatre Company with business partner Hallie Wynn, co-producing a multitude of shows in New York City and the surrounding tri-state area.
“I had kept developing the script I had started in 2001 but had no intention of producing it,” Leoni recalls. “Michelle saw the script, read it and then just grabbed it, telling me, “˜This has to happen. This is something you need to say.’ She just pushed through all my doubts and fears. She has been the cheerleader behind this project all along.”
“We did the original workshop production of Playground that year at the Hudson Mainstage,” Kaufer continues.Â “We actually produced it five times between 2004 and 2007, at the Hudson, Deaf West and the Unknown Theater.” During that period, Leoni used the stage name Michael Justen instead of his given name Michael Leoni.
Along the way, Leoni and Kaufer co-founded An 11:11 Experiment, with a mandate to produce both theater and film, basically dedicated to producing media in all forms to create and promote positive social change.
“Our current production of The Playground is a result of the hiatus we took after the 2007 show,” says Leoni. “I then went out on the street and made a documentary film called The American Street Kid. I spent two years with all these homeless kids, chronicling their stories, becoming very close, actually becoming family with them.
“One thing I learned is the reasons kids are out in the street today are the same as they were in 2001.Â It’s been the same thing forever. Basically, they are running from abusive families, people that do not care for them, escaping from bad foster care situations. There are kids that are runaways and kids that have been thrown out. One of the kids we met was dropped off at a rest stop by his parents when he was 10 years old. There are all kinds of stories but, in essence, they are all the same. Sometimes, when I first meet a new kid, I think he or she is lying, because you can’t imagine a parent would do something like this to their own child.Â This new stage show we re doing at the MET is inspired by all the kids I met making that film.”
While the first incarnations of the show were based on Leoni’s New York research, this latest rendition is based more on the Hollywood kids Leoni met while shooting the documentary.
Kaufer is also co-founder of Spare Some Change, “an ongoing campaign and social movement to raise awareness and provide life empowering and enrichment programs in the lives of homeless youth.” She specifically planned the opening of The Playground to coincide with November’s designation as National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. “We are using every strategy we can to bring attention to this project,” she affirms. “Unlike the previous productions, we feel the structure of this show, with its stories and with the music, can move forward.”
Leoni knows that staging a musical is complicated to pull off, but musicals seem the most natural way to communicate the stories and the essence of life on the streets. “I was raised in that Rent generation as a young kid,” he admits. “I had always loved music and musicals but was searching for something bitchier than what was out there.Â When I saw Rent, it really inspired me.Â It was really saying something. I knew I wanted to write something that was going to change the world.Â That’s when I decided to try to combine the stories from kids I met into a musical format.”
The Playground incorporates contributions from five songwriters, including Beth Hart, Michael Montoya, Ishmael Herring, Gunner Wright, and Winston King Jr, offering a range of musical styles — blues, rock, hip hop, pop and more. Leoni believes the diversity perfectly fits the mandate of the show. “This is not a typical musical where characters are singing to one another.Â The songs are coming out of their thoughts –Â the drug trips and fantasies in the minds of these kids in their own private moments. The music is not meant to support the story and move the plot along. It is meant to show the audience what these kids are really feeling, what they are living through.
“I specifically went after the musical artists I felt would bring the right elements to the show.Â Beth Hart was a starving artist, involved with drugs,and had a homeless sister on the streets involved with prostitution. One of my other composers was a central character in the documentary. Another had been a homeless kid living in Arizona. I found the right people to make this music more diverse and more true to life.”
Leoni did not cast any of the street kids he interviewed for the documentary, which is currently in post-production.Â “This is a professional ensemble of actors I auditioned and interviewed in order to get a diverse group of people who would best communicate this to an audience.Â I have actors with a great deal of stage experience, some on Broadway, and others with no experience. In casting, I was looking for the right energy and a personal connection to the material.Â One cast member was homeless when he auditioned and is just now getting off the street. I told him he had to get off the streets if he was to be in this show.” Leoni is using some of the documentary kids as interns on the production.Â One is actually his assistant director.
“There is an end goal to all of this,” promises Kaufer. “Over the course of the last seven years, we have had positive interest and offers on this piece.Â We had a Broadway producer who wanted to take it to New York. We’ve had interest from film studios. For me, I’d be happy if it went either way.Â I just wanted us to be prepared for that to happen.Â We want to stay true to the story of these kids.Â So many of the film people wanted to make it PG.Â Well, that is not this story. Kids on the street do drugs, curse, face abuse and sometimes steal, do violence and prostitution.Â You can’t cut that out and tell this story.”
“A lot of the offers we’ve had, we’ve walked away from because I wasn’t ready,” Leoni admits. “When I first wrote this show, I was in a very dark place, without much sense of hope. But now, I think this show is more optimistic and in a place where it can move forward.Â Yeah, I’m ready for that.”
The Playground – A Street Rock Musical, MET Theatre, 1089 Oxford Ave., LA. Presented by An 11:11 Experiment, DOMA Theatre and Venture Hill Entertainment, in association with Spare Some Change & The Hope and Union Foundation. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. until Dec 18.Â Tickets: $30.Â 323-960-7745. www.domatheatre.com
***All The Playground production photos by MichÃ¨le Young