To celebrate StarKid’s release of their Star Wars parody Ani on YouTube, Hypable spoke with writer Nick Lang and composer Clark Baxtresser about creating the show, fan reactions and a certain controversial floppy-eared character.
Ani, the latest instalment in Team StarKid’s pop culture parody musical oeuvre, has finally hit the internet after five weeks of live performances as part of StarKid’s Summer Season at Chicago’s Stage 773.
Ani stars Chris Allen as Anakin Skywalker, Brian Holden as Jar Jar Binks and Nick Lang as Obi-Wan Kenobi, with a book by Nick and Matt Lang, and music by Clark Baxtresser and Pierce Siebers as TalkFine. Unlike Team StarKid’s other musical productions, Ani’s musical numbers performed by the band rather than sung by the characters. The show is available to watch online for free, and in the lead-up to the YouTube premiere, we caught up with creators Nick Lang and Clark Baxtresser about their newest venture.
‘Ani’ is finally here! What made you wait so long to do a Star Wars show? I know you’ve wanted it for a long time.
Nick Lang: Star Wars is a tricky thing to tackle. There have already been countless great parodies out there (Spaceballs, Family Guy, all the Robot Chicken episodes, George Lucas In Love, the Star Wars Gangsta Rap, and many, many more), so it’s tough to find something original to say about the franchise. It took us a long time to settle on what was going to be in the show and what wasn’t. We ended up focusing on how the prequel trilogy – Episodes I, II & III – changed how we perceived the character of Darth Vader. The show is also kind of about George Lucas in a way, and it’s a little autobiographical for us as well. I think when people see the show, they’ll relate to it. There’s a little bit of Ani in everybody.
Chris Allen as Ani.
‘Ani’ was a departure for you in that, instead of being a traditional musical, it’s a play with a musical score. What lead to this decision, and how does that affect your writing and rehearsing process?
Nick: We chose to do it this way because we wanted the show to feel like a Rocky movie. So we wanted the songs to be fun 80s montages. There’s even a training montage in the show. It didn’t really affect the playwriting at all, as we tend to write the scripts to our shows first, then tell the music writers where we’d like songs to be, and it changed the rehearsal process simply in the fact that the actors didn’t need to learn to sing the songs. They still had to learn dances though. There’s plenty of dancing in the show.
Did you find writing the score for ‘Ani’ to be easier or more difficult than writing musical theater numbers to be sung by the characters?
Clark Baxtresser: It was different for sure. Some things were easier, some were more difficult. In a traditional musical, the big thing to keep in mind is character – who’s singing what, why are they singing that, how do they feel at the moment and how would they express that. And so that can be a very helpful guideline, but at the same time it can be tough to get exactly right, to get into the head of a character and imagine how they would say something through music. With Ani, the band kind of functioned as a Greek chorus. We had songs that we had to write for different scenes and moments, but they were all being delivered by us, by TalkFine, so it was easy to get into that headspace.
The other thing to keep in mind was imagining what the music would be if Ani was a movie. We watched some Sly Stallone movies for inspiration and that was enormously helpful, but there was added pressure there in terms of providing the soundtrack for a big moment of action, and trying to make that moment as powerful as we knew it needed to be. For example, the song that we had to write for the podrace at the end was maybe the most difficult to write, we went through like 10 different versions. But the song we eventually ended up with is one of our favorites and I think one of the most effective in the show.
Out of all of the characters in the Star Wars universe, how did you decide to include the ones that you did, considering the majority of them are small-time characters?
Nick: We picked ones that worked for the story. It’s fun to take small things from the source material and make them huge deals. Like in A Very Potter Musical, arguably the main relationship is between Voldemort and Quirrell. It’s just funny to draw peoples’ attention to a little thing and say “actually, this is the most important thing to us.” Also, again, we didn’t want to tread on territory that was already covered in other, way more famous Star Wars parodies, so we had to pick characters that might not usually get as much love. Also, this might sound weird, but there really aren’t any small characters in Star Wars. It has such a vast expanded universe. Basically every single character has had a book or comic just about them, so everyone is a pretty big deal to someone.
The biggest character we have in there that people might not know is Mara Jade. She’s super important. In the extended universe, she ends up marrying Luke Skywalker. Sadly, she’ll probably get wiped out of existence when Star Wars Episode VII comes out – I think they’ve said they’re ignoring the extended universe. So it’s nice to see Mara Jade in something before she doesn’t exist anymore.
What do you think about the real Jar Jar Binks, given his sympathetic role in this show?
Nick: I think the show speaks to our feelings. He gets a bad rap. A lot of people say he ruins Episode I, or ruins Star Wars altogether, and he doesn’t. However you feel about the prequels, Jar Jar Binks doesn’t make or break them. He’s comic relief for kids. I would’ve been very curious to see how Episodes II and III would’ve went down if the internet didn’t exist, because people hated C3PO when the first Star Wars came out. They thought he was annoying. But over the three movies, he grows on you and by the end you love him more than anything. Imagine if people didn’t bash Jar Jar so bad. He would’ve stayed a main character and might have become beloved as well. In the end, he’s probably the world’s biggest fictional victim of cyber-bullying.
How did the Summer Season experience of running two shows in the same space end up turning out for you?
Clark: It definitely kept things interesting. The band, for example, played for both shows, so switching shows every night, or sometimes doing both shows in one day, allowed us to approach each performance with a somewhat fresh attitude. It also helped that the shows were so different, both musically and otherwise. The main difficulty was the obvious one: it turns out it can be hard and stressful to put up two shows at the same time, especially for the people who were doing double duty. Our stage manager, Ruby Summers, managed both shows and did an amazing job, but I can’t imagine how she kept her head screwed on the whole time. Or Nick, he was directing The Trail To Oregon!, while also acting in Ani, while also dealing with edits and cuts to both scripts. And the band had a busy time of it as well. So there were moments leading up to opening night where it definitely felt like, “Oh man, if only we were only doing one show, wouldn’t that be nice?” But I’m sure if we were to attempt two shows again we would be better equipped to handle it based on our experiences last summer.
Nick: Very well, I think. It was stressful to get going, but whence it started to run it was very fun. That’s probably how StarKid will function from now on. Season-style. Like any other theater company.
The combined casts and crew of StarKid’s Summer Season.
How was the fan response to ‘Ani<' during the Summer Season - did you hear from a lot of StarKid fans who were new to Star Wars, or even Star Wars fans who were new to StarKid?
Nick: I think it was a good response. Who knows? Maybe people were just being nice to me in the lobby after the show. Maybe they just told me they liked it to not hurt my feelings. But I don’t think so. I mean, I really like the show. It’s one of my all-time favorite StarKid shows. I’m very proud of it. The music is incredible, the actors do a great job, and it’s a funny, heart-warming story about an underdog making the galaxy’s biggest comeback. I did meet lots of people that hadn’t seen Star Wars, or watched it just so they could understand the show. I could always tell when an audience knew Star Wars and when they didn’t. Certain jokes would land some nights and they wouldn’t other nights. I think there’s enough in the show for you to enjoy it even if you don’t know too much about Star Wars. It certainly helps if you know it really well.
We experienced the same thing with Holy Musical B@man! – lots of kids didn’t know too much about Batman, so they didn’t get the jokes. We even kind of worked this whole thing into the story of Ani. In the show, Ani is always telling Star Wars jokes, and nobody knows what he’s talking about, so he then has to explain himself. And that’s where the comedy comes in. I did, however, see a few non-StarKid fans in the audience, people with Star Wars t-shirts on. I would watch those people specifically during the show. They all had a great time. In short, people liked it.
Clark: My favorite part of performing Ani ended up being watching the audience, checking their faces during certain scenes, certain jokes. The band had a great view of everyone in the crowd and it was just too much fun to look for the people who really knew the Star Wars universe and who were getting all, or most, of the jokes. A lot of the time those people looked more like Star Wars fans than StarKid fans, they wore Star Wars gear and they didn’t look like our usual demographic, at least very generally speaking. That just felt so cool, reaching new people who may have stumbled across the show for one reason or another but didn’t know anything about StarKid as a company outside of the show. I think that’s our goal for Ani as it becomes public, trying to reach people in the ever-expanding Star Wars fandom who might get a kick out of this show. It’s definitely one of those written-by-fans-for-fans shows that StarKid does so so well.