She just landed a big job on Broadway, but no one should be surprised. Playwright Alexis Scheer has always been determined. As a Miami adolescent, she passed on having a bat mitzvah to take a role in a regional production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“I don’t remember exactly what I told my parents, but I made a really big case that ‘I don’t need the bat mitzvah. I need to do this musical!’” she says, laughing. “And they agreed! I think my dad was like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever’ and my mother was really relieved that, ‘Oh, we don’t have to pay for a big bat mitzvah.’”
The comic polish on that anecdote shines through in Scheer’s Laughs in Spanish, having its world premiere production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The play centers around Mariana, who arrives to open the doors of her gallery in Miami’s uber-trendy Wynwood neighborhood and discovers a catastrophe: She’s been robbed! The walls are empty. All of the art is gone. And tonight she’s hosting a big shindig for Art Basel Miami!
The well-made comedy opens the door for insights about code-switching, Latina representation, and art-world hype. “I like to be subversive,” Scheer says, “in a subversive way.”
While she’s in Denver for rehearsals, Scheer will also be flying back and forth to New York, where she is writing additional book material for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Bad Cinderella, which begins previews Feb. 17 at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre after West End run in 2021-22. Laughs in Spanish was the writing sample that helped get her the job, she says.
“My first reaction was total shock,” says Scheer. “Andrew Lloyd Webber is the entry point to theater for so many, including me. A regional theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that I saw in the second grade is what made me fall in love with theater. I sang ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar to get into The Boston Conservatory (where she earned a degree in musical theater performance). I’ve just always been surrounded by his work. So it was totally surreal when I got the job.”
Bad Cinderella features an original story and book by Oscar-winning writer Emerald Fennell and lyrics by Tony winner David Zippel, directed by Laurence Connor. This Cinderella is a goth outcast in the otherwise perfect town of Belleville who learns that beauty is only skin-deep after getting a big makeover for the royal ball.
“Now we’re in the thick of it, so sometimes I forget the magnitude of it all,” she says. “But then I get these flashes of, like, starstruck-ness, I guess? Once I was sitting at his dining table with him, the lyricist, and director. The director and I were reading one of the scenes out loud, and Andrew starts singing the underscoring he’s going to put in, and I just stopped and thought to myself ‘Holy shit, I’m sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber while he’s writing a musical.’”
It will be interesting to see what Scheer does with the fairy tale on Broadway. Her taste for subversion was clear with her breakthrough work, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a dark, wild fantasia about a rowdy clique of troubled teenage girls trying to raise the spirit of the late Colombian drug-cartel boss Pablo Escobar. Yup. First produced in Boston, by Scheer’s own Off the Grid Theatre Company, now dormant, it helped her get an agent, and she was named The Improper Bostonian’s Rising Theatre Star of 2018. Drug Lord premiered Off Broadway in 2019, in a co-production by The WP Theater and Second Stage.
Laughs in Spanish was written as Scheer’s thesis play for Boston University’s MFA playwriting program and professionally workshopped at BU’s Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 2019.
When Scheer was a girl, her parents owned a small button business on 26th Street in pre-gentrification Wynwood, then a rough-and-tumble neighborhood far from the glitz of Miami Beach. “I used to go all the time, especially in summer, and my parents called it button camp,” Scheer says. “Just walls and walls and shelves of every kind of button you could ever imagine. I would sit and snap buttons together. I used to have a bag and collect my favorite ones, mostly the glittery ones.”
In 2014, with the neighborhood changing dramatically and real-estate values shooting up, they closed the button business and sold out to developers in 2014. “I was thinking a lot about this little warehouse I spent so much time in as a kid, and what its next life would be, and daydreaming about that space as a gallery space and who would occupy that – and I wrote this play.”
Mariana has Jewish and Colombian roots, like Scheer; aside from the missing artwork, her other big problem on this day is a visit from her mother, Estella, a fading Colombian movie star who makes the Kardashians look self-effacing. Not much more helpful are Mariana’s employee Carolina, a painter; Carolina’s boyfriend, a cop; and Mariana’s assistant, Jenny from LA.
Scheer says that Estella is not based on her own mother – “too much.” “Of course my mom is a little bit extra in the way all of our moms are a little bit extra. But when I was thinking about that character, I was thinking about all the actresses I love, many of whom are my teachers, who I wanted to play the part. Any time I’m writing, I think about the actors – what are fun awesome delicious roles to act?”
Her mother also provided her introduction to the international art-world gathering Art Basel Miami. “When I was in middle school, the button business was not doing well, so mom started working in the design district, managing interior design stores, and so part of Art Basel every year was a big party she was throwing. That was my first time being conscious of the art world. ‘Oh mom’s out late, she has to think catering and hors d’oeuvres.”
Now based in Boston, Scheer is looking forward to Denver so she can make sure the play’s jokes are still on point. As a society we are in a different place than when she started writing, she says. “There’s one joke about the mom not understanding Twitter, and I don’t think you get through a Trump presidency without knowing about Twitter.”
During her Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel a few years ago, she finally got her bat mitzvah, a “quickie” in a Jerusalem basement synagogue. “It feels kinda legit. It was in Israel. That has to count for something!”
During the pandemic, she spent one season as a writer on the streaming show Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, but her first writer’s room being a Zoom screen was a little disappointing. “I heard lunches are a big deal [in Hollywood] but nope, I was in charge of my own lunches. We did all get familiar with each other’s pets, though.
“The crazy thing about being a writer is, theater shut down during the pandemic, but I had all these commissions that I needed to keep working on, and so I stayed busy, and kept writing, and hoping that one day theater will open back up,” she says. “It’s great to circle back now and give [Laughs in Spanish] a proper launch into the world.”
Now, she’ll be flying back and forth to sit beside Webber on Broadway.
“I will have the best of both worlds for a few weeks!” Scheer says. “The fact that they’re both comedies is something I’m really looking forward to, because things I learn in one room will help me in the other.”
Laughs in Spanish
Jan 27 – Mar 12 • Singleton Theatre