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Photo by Walter McBride courtesy of BroadwayWorld

The New York Musical Festival is once again in full swing and one of the most talked about shows this year is Newton’s Cradle, the story about a young man, Evan Newton, who brings his family to their secluded Alaskan cabin to propose. The show’s predominant theme focuses on autism.

Tony Award winner Victoria Clark directs the nearly sold-out piece which features an unprecedented creative mother and son team. Kim Saunders, a native and resident of Seattle contributes to the book and lyrics while her son, now a New Yorker, provides music and lyrics.  Heath’s brother, Trent, who stars in the original cast of Broadway’s Aladdin is also in the cast.

During a rehearsal break in the East Village, Kim and Heath sat down with me in Washington Square Park and, between salad bites, talked about their musical family and their passion for this project. They also provided both an explanation and demonstration for one of Heath’s most “unique” skills.

MD: Your background is a bit non-traditional. Talk a little bit about your own family dynamic.

Heath: I have four siblings. My mom and dad were divorced when I was around seven years old. And now my mom is married to our other mom, Shelly (Michelle), so we were mostly raised by our two moms. That’s been very interesting (laughs).

Kim: 4 of the 5 are actors here in New York and the oldest is a choir teacher, so he is also a musician.

Photo by Walter McBride courtesy of BroadwayWorld
Photo by Walter McBride courtesy of BroadwayWorld

MD: This is the first time collaborating on a project as a mother and son. How did that process evolve?

Kim: We were both inspired by this young man that we met who played in the orchestra pit of this community theater in the Seattle area. He was a great reed player. Heath and I both music directed the orchestra. This young man’s sister became involved in the pit later in the process and we both noticed that he behaved very differently than he did when she wasn’t there. We learned that he was on the autism spectrum. How does it happen that somebody can be so impaired by this label, but currently lives in a world where that isn’t a label that the person lives with? He went from having the label of autism but being fully functional in the world.

Heath: My cousin is also autistic. We grew up together. As he’s gotten older, he’s become far less socially engaged. Many of my friends all fall onto the spectrum and have for years. Once I started researching, I realized that a lot of people fit into it.

Kim: The more general question of labels is significant. When does it help in terms of identifying who you are and when does it pose a barrier? Our story in Newton’s Cradle helps to explain how autism is really a family diagnosis, not an individual one. How do family interactions help shape our lead character Evan’s sense of self?

Heath: Originally, we didn’t set out to write a musical. My mom was writing a novel and I was writing songs that I thought might make a good musical. But we thought it was impractical to be telling the same story, so we decided to just write the musical together. So we did!

Photo by Walter McBride courtesy of BroadwayWorld
Photo by Walter McBride courtesy of BroadwayWorld

MD: How does the family relationship work into the creative process?  

Kim: We have both the benefit and challenge of having this be our first musical writing collaboration. In many ways, we’ve been figuring it out as we go. It’s been a feat for me to learn how to stop being a mom and be more of a collaborator. We have a strong mother-son relationship, but I feel a little behind in terms of the fact that Heath has been immersed in theater for so long. I was immersed in my corporate job at a high-tech firm. Now that I’m committed to writing full time, it’s been an amazing learning experience and he’s been a wonderful collaborator.

MD: The title Newton’s Cradle is a physics device that i`s used to explain momentum and energy. I would assume that it relates to this story in some way?

Heath: The family’s name is Newton. There is a double entendre actually. It refers to the cabin that Evan was raised in, which is like his cradle. Then, there is the physics device that, as you said, is a transference of energy. A lot of what plays into the show is observing patterns and repetitions much like a swinging pendulum.

MD: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of autism?

Both: This is an important question for us.

Heath: The primary misunderstanding, which applies to many mental diagnoses in our western culture is that we think of autism as something that is wrong with a brain rather than, what I believe, is a distinct set of traits that describe them. When you combine them you get this word: autism. The problem is that this label of autism is very misguided. For example, I have an African-American father and a Caucasian mother. What that makes me becomes very interesting. Many consider me black, others consider me mixed. In the same way that there are traits that make me African-American including my skin color, bone structure, and hair, those things together create a racial identity. Any of those single things by itself is not that identity. People think that autism is a thing that people are rather than looking at it as a set of things which comprise a person.

Kim: In some sense, a label is the root of all prejudice. It comes from this idea that a label tells us something about a person. We then interpret them through the filter of the label. This show is a chance to break down those assumptions and open the possibility of seeing people for who they are instead of what you label them to be.

Heath: It’s particularly timely because of identity politics. Autism, as far an identity, is a tangible concept that many people don’t relate to.  There is a quote that says you can know 10 people with autism and you know 10 different versions of autism.

Photo by Kim & Heath Saunders.
Photo by Kim & Heath Saunders.

MD: Your music style tends to not be traditional musical theatre. What can audiences expect to hear from this score?

Heath:  It’s as if Adam Guettel, who comes from the musical lineage of Richard and Mary Rodgers were raised by Katy Perry and Frank Ocean. It’s harmonically complex but I use sounds, effects and ways of writing songs that distinctly comes from the world of electronic pop.

MD: How long did it take you to write the show?

Kim: We probably worked for about 18 months to two years before we actually had a draft. We had our first full draft last summer. We had known so much about the characters by the time the draft came. One thing that struck me in the process was the lack of female characters we had in our show. I noticed during one of my trips to New York that there were limited female leads, so Heath and I decided that Newton’s Cradle , and any other show we write, will have a 50/50 balance of male and female characters. If you can do that, why wouldn’t you?!?

MD: Heath, you have a wealth of skills on your resume including many musical instruments, juggling, trapeze, and tumbling.  One thing that particularly jumped out at me was the “drunk girl wink”. Can you explain and/or demonstrate?

Heath: (Laughs) That is probably my most commonly asked for skill. It’s a whole thing.

MD: [It cannot be captured in print, but if you ever meet Heath in person, request it. You will laugh for days]

Newton’s Cradle, a NYMF production runs Aug 3- Aug 7 at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 W 42nd Street between 7th & 8th Avenues). For tickets and more information, click here.