For 25 years, Faith Soloway has witnessed the transformative power of Urban Improv on young people; her work as a teaching artist with the organization changed her life. Now she’s paying it back — by writing a musical for its annual fund-raiser, “Banned in Boston.”
The school and community program uses improvisational theater workshops to help young people deal creatively with life’s challenges and to strengthen their social and emotional learning skills. “It’s a model that gets kids to come out of their bodies and make positive decisions in a safe way through conversation,” Soloway says. “The program has never left me. I love it so much, and I’m always trying to find a way to be part of it.”
Soloway was a natural choice to lead this year’s virtual event, to be presented April 1 at 7 p.m. Not only does she have a decades-long association with the organization, but she’s also an accomplished musical and comedy writer, having penned the script and composed the songs for the movie-musical finale of “Transparent,” the pioneering Amazon television series created by her sibling Joey (previously Jill) Soloway. Faith also served as a writer and producer on the series, which was inspired by the Soloways’ parent coming out as trans late in life.
The 25th anniversary edition of “Banned in Boston” will be presented online on April Fools’ Day by Urban Improv’s umbrella organization, Rehearsal for Life, and it features a special guest appearance by “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. “Writing this show has been like a love letter to my experience with Urban Improv and to the program itself,” says Soloway, who’s now a board member of the organization.
Still, the prospect of creating an entire musical from scratch, in a virtual format and in a compressed time frame, seemed daunting. “My first reaction was panic,” Soloway says. “Political sketch commentary and satire is not my jam.”
Indeed, while previous iterations of “Banned in Boston” featured light comedy sketches with local celebrities and political bigwigs, Soloway was encouraged to stick to her “wheelhouse.” So she’s written a full-fledged narrative — a first for the event — and has taken a meta approach. The story is a behind-the-scenes look at the planning and creation of a fund-raiser for Rehearsal for Life, set in a tumultuous year when in-person events are not possible. The show also pays tribute to the organization’s founders, Kippy Dewey and Narcissa Campion, who are retiring from their current positions.
“We’re all playing heightened versions of ourselves,” Soloway says. “And as the very anxious writer of this show, I am playing that anxiety all the way through, because there’s so much to do and so little time. I’m sort of the host, your fearful leader. And I came up with a tagline: Desperate times calls for desperate musicals.”
The “Banned in Boston” cast includes an array of local luminaries, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; US Representative Jim McGovern; comedian Jimmy Tingle; Massachusetts state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz; Shayna Seymour, cohost of WCVB’s “Chronicle”; and Wayfair co-chairman Steve Conine, among others.
“When [Urban Improv] asked me, I just had to do the only thing that I know, which is writing musicals with people who maybe shouldn’t be doing musicals,” Soloway says with a laugh.
The big fish, though, was Colbert, whose invitation Soloway calls “a Hail Mary.” The two had worked together when she was the musical director at Second City, the improv theater company in her hometown of Chicago.
“I haven’t talked to Stephen since we were both in our 20s. But I e-mailed him through a mutual friend, and he got right back to me and said yes. It changed the trajectory of what this could be.”
Colbert plays a version of himself, but Soloway is tight-lipped about the details. “It’s a deus ex machina kind of twist. He’s delivering it as a half-parody, half-not-parody. He’s like the fireworks going off at the end.”
In Chicago, the Soloways were members of the Annoyance Theatre and created the wildly popular theatrical parody “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” which starred Jane Lynch and Andy Richter. Faith went on to write the fringe theater favorite “Co-Ed Prison Sluts,” which became Chicago’s longest-running musical.
In Boston, besides writing and directing musicals with Urban Improv, Soloway led the music theater department of the Charles River Creative Arts Program for 18 summers. She first emerged in Boston as a singer-songwriter in the folk scene, playing sold-out shows at Club Passim. She also created so-called “schlock operas” like “Jesus Has Two Mommies” and “Miss Folk America,” hyper-parodies of the overly earnest world of folk.
“It’s this weird synthesis of folk music and comedy and cheesy musicals,” she says. “What I’m doing with ‘Banned in Boston’ is a complete schlock opera too.”
But her songwriting isn’t all schlock. Indeed, Soloway describes her style as balancing a sardonic, arch comedy with gut-level emotions and poignancy. That’s a formula that served “Transparent” well, too.
Still, more than a few people raised an eyebrow at the choice to conclude the Emmy-winning “Transparent” with a bonkers movie-musical. Soloway says it was an attempt at healing after star Jeffrey Tambor was fired in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. The cast and creative team viewed it as a chance to “process what we went through from beginning to end,” she says. “We had to face all that pain. Music has a healing power and so do musicals.”
Indeed, in a year when Urban Improv programs were virtual and remote and when people were dealing with so much grief and loss from the pandemic, Soloway hopes that “Banned in Boston” can provide a balm for its community.
“It’s so critical for students to have the safe space to be able to process the things that they’re going through, to be able to role-play these devised scenes in real time,” says Elena Velasco, the executive and artistic director of Rehearsal for Life.
The “Banned in Boston” revue typically raises about $700,000, accounting for 60 percent to 70 percent of Urban Improv’s operating budget, and Velasco says that money is critical at a time when the program has gone virtual. “We’ve had to film a whole lot this past year, and we’ve had to create a new curriculum so we can be responsive to the needs of our students,” Velasco says. “We have new material on racism, new material on anxiety and mental health, new material on loss and grief and depression. That takes time and resources.”
Watching the program’s catalyzing effect on young people first-hand, Soloway can attest to its potency. “It’s so powerful watching children understand that they can break out of a way they usually do things. I just knew every moment of the day that I was experiencing something really life-changing for kids and the artists.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BANNED IN BOSTON
Presented by Rehearsal for Life. April 1 at 7 p.m. Register for tickets at bannedinboston.org.