Jonathan & Kimbirdlee Fadner draw from personal and community resources

Monkey King Musical: An Extended Family Affair

Updated 1 year ago David Stone

"There is really not a moment in the day when we are not 'working' on The Monkey King!" Kimbirdlee Fadner, one-half of the duo bringing this new musical to life, enthused. Easier said than done, I thought, remembering seeing her, husband Jonathan and sons Jack and Charley, last weekend, utterly exhausted after two weeks of intense daily rehearsals, on Main Street. Birthing new theatrical art takes enormous energy... and an extended family of Roosevelt Island friends, to make it happen.

Kimbirdlee Fadner rehearses as The Monkey King
Kimbirdlee Fadner rehearses as The Monkey King
Photo: Irina Island Images

Birth of a Monkey King

I asked the pair, founders of Common Man Musicals, which staged another original and successful work, Northanger Abbey, last year in the Howe Theatre, how The Monkey King came to life as a living, breathing production.

Typically, because they're usually as complicated as they are collaborative, stage musicals are years in the making, developing through stages of workshops, readings and trials. But not The Monkey King.

"I think the magic of our collaboration is that we were able to get the show off the paper and onto a stage so quickly."

Jonathan Fadner is a composer, Kimbirdlee an actor and singer.

"We wrote the script together by a lot of going back-and-forth," she recalls. "Jonathan laid down the foundation, and I would then go off with the material and add, edit, rewrite.

"As an actor, I could play with how the dialogue sounded out loud and see if Jonathan's jokes worked, etc. We wanted the material to be fun with a comic book feel, while delivering a strong message."

That message?

"We wanted to write something to make the kids ask real questions about society today and still be fun. We wanted to make a strong Asian female role in musical theatre. We wanted to ask the question, 'How do we see it as a society when a woman fights her way to the top as opposed to a man?'”

The danger of losing the original story within a contemporary message is not lost on the Fadners.

The Monkey King has origins dating back to when Kimbirdlee and Jonathan read the story to Jack, their first born, when he was a baby.

"Monkey King still faces the Demon of Havoc, the Immortal Teacher, Dragon King of the Sea and Jade Emperor, meets Guan Yin, and visits familiar places such as Flower Fruit Mountain, the School for Immortals, the Dragon of the Sea’s palace, and the Heavenly Peach Orchard. Our Monkey King follows a very similar journey as the original Sun Wukong but, each step of the way, has to deal with the backlash of being a women instead of a man."

Monkey King Musical: An Extended Family Affair

Jonathan, she adds, "has a great memory for details which helps us maintain the integrity of the original story, while I come from a Chinese background and am able to represent that part of the story."

From Story to Musical

Jonathan composed the music and wrote the lyrics, kicking off that half of the production. 

In their home studio, Kimbirdlee made the first recordings.

"We would listen and fix and listen some more. This gave us a chance to see what worked and what needed finessing."

The Fadners are quick to note that their work would be an exercise in vanity, were it not for Kristi Towey, Executive Director at Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, whose commission built the foundation along with a New Works Grant from Queens Council on the Arts.

"I am just incredibly proud of the Fadner’s and thrilled to have them as part of the MST&DA family," says Towey.

After a few minutes, she adds, "I would also like to say that one of the things I love so much about them is their passion. They are passionate about their family, each other, their art, the students they teach, and the communities they work with. It is so genuine and pure. It is really refreshing to work with such talented people that have such pure intentions."

The Fadners are gracious in their appreciation.

"Incredible support from our Common Man Musicals Roosevelt Island community and family has helped us tremendously to get this far, both financially and emotionally."

Taken for granted is the creative support garnered from working through the initial concept at MST&DA's Howe Theatre with a talented group of youngsters from the Children's Theatre Program. In April, the first Monkey King production filled the house on Main Street.

Monkey King Musical: An Extended Family Affair

Coming Up Next Weekend

And next weekend, enriched by what was learned from watching the Children's Theatre kids do their thing in the Howe Theatre, The Monkey King returns as an Equity Showcase, which allows professionals to perform under relaxed union rules to nurture new theatre.

"Much of that youth version has stayed in the show," Kimbirdlee says, "while we’ve expanded the score with more complex harmonies and rhythms and the script slightly revised for a more mature cast. This is still a family show by all means," she adds.

Get your tickets now for The Monkey King, the theatrical event of the summer for Roosevelt Island, playing next weekend in the Howe Theatre, 548 Main Street, Roosevelt Island. Pick a date and get your tickets here.

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