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Syfy Exec by Day, Playwright by Night: From ‘Sharknado’ to an Ayn Rand Orgy

Syfy Exec by Day, Playwright by Night: From 'Sharknado' to an Ayn Rand Orgy

Michael Blase

Syfy executive Gary Morgenstein talks about his sci-fi musical in the latest edition of TheWrap's Writers’ Room series

The entertainment industry is filled with people in supporting roles who want their own chance to shine: Publicists working on screenplays, accountants hoping to direct, assistants who dream of acting.

Gary Morgenstein should give hope to them all. The Syfy communications director has written an off-Broadway musical, “The Anthem,” that The New York Times calls “exuberant,” with “dazzling trimmings”, despite its unmusical source material: one of the lesser, preachier works of conservative philosopher Ayn Rand.

Also read: ‘Sharknado’ Plans Merchandizing Frenzy (Exclusive)

Morgenstein (pictured below) published two novels in quick succession in the early 1980s — and then nothing. For two decades he worked in public relations, at New York's PBS station, WNET, then at ABC News, A&E and Lifetime. He wrote the entire time, without much success.

Until he got lucky: His brother-in-law turned out to be a master criminal.

Marcina Zaccaria

That inspired his first play, “Ponzi Man,” in 2005. And then the floodgates opened. He wrote three more plays, self-published two novels, and in May debuted “The Anthem.”

Also read: ‘Sharknado 3' Gets Greenlight From Syfy

The off-Broadway production has something for everyone: soaring songs; a passionate cast of beautiful people who sing, dance, skate, hang from ropes and carry off a pitch-perfect orgy; and Randy Jones, best known as the cowboy from the Village People (pictured above with Remy Zaken).

Morgenstein says he got through his dark periods by trusting himself.

“Someone else will always sell more copies. And someone will always get more acclaim. And so you can't compare your work to other people. Just do what you do,” he told TheWrap.

What he does during the day is pitch Syfy shows as its director of communications. One of his greatest successes has been helping to turn last year's “Sharknado” from a campy low-budget movie into a cultural phenomenon. Spend a few minutes with Morgenstein and it's clear he's been in on the joke from the start: He knows his way around good-spirited kitsch, and it shows with “The Anthem.”

The producers of “The Anthem” reached out to you because one had produced one of your earlier plays. And you got some immediate attention from people who love or hate Ayn Rand. How did you approach the material?
I said okay, but I'm not an Ayn Rand fan. How can I make it fun? So I thought, I'll focus on the idea of individuality. I didn't want ideology, I didn't want a political message, I wanted something people could relate to. So many people feel disconnected from their government and their society. You go from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party and everyone in between.

If you want people to think a certain way, you're kind of violating that sense of individuality. You should think whatever you want. And if you don't think anything significant, and you just enjoy the music and laugh, great. What's wrong with that?

Cast Aerial

Michael Blase

Did you know this would have actors spinning from ropes? A disco ball bedecked in explosives? Can you talk about your discussions with the director, Rachel Klein?
It had to be a spectacle. I said, “People are going to have to fly. Can you do that?” She said, “Sure — we just have to find a theater where the ceiling won't fall down.” I said, there's gonna be fights. She said OK. I said, “Can you make a severed head fall from the ceiling?” She said yeah. I wanted it to splatter blood, but somehow that got lost. You can't splatter blood on the audience.

Is Syfy cool with you doing this? Once people at work know you're a writer, there's a risk of your boss saying, ‘Why aren't you available? Are you off working on your novel'?
But I always am available. Your work always comes first. Work supersedes my writing. Except a couple times where I said, “Can I leave early for rehearsal?” … They're very supportive. They went to the show last Wednesday. It's not like I'm sitting there instead of doing my job. It's a good atmosphere.

Do you think of yourself as a writer first, or an executive first?
I don't think you judge. I don't believe in having to choose.

How do you find time to write while also holding down a very full-time job?
Sometimes it's not easy. … I write in the morning before I come to work. A half hour, an hour at night. If you're a writer and you want to write you find a way. And this was fun. … Sometimes I won't eat. Or I'll eat pretzels or cashews and just write until I'm too tired. And then the weekends. And then a personal life. You have to live. If you're a writer and you don't live and experience emotions, then what are you writing about?

My first play was “Ponzi Man” in 2005. It's an interesting personal story because it was inspired by Reed Slatkin. Google Reed Slatkin. Before Bernie Madoff there was Reed Slatkin. … He was also my brother in law. So if your brother can't steal your money, who can?

How do you work with the composer, Jonnie Rockwell, and the lyricist, Erik Ransom?
People don't leave the theater humming your dialogue. But the songs have to advance the story. … You give them guidelines. You say, “The song goes here, it should be about…” And then they interpret it. I'm tone deaf. I don't know how people come up with music. I don't know how Erik came up with the lyrics and Jonnie came up with these beautiful tunes, but they did it. It made the story flow. We were all kind of symbiotic.

What is it like to work on something collaborative as opposed to writing alone?
When you write a musical, it's everyone. Like the Palace of Mating scene, which is always everyone's favorite. When I wrote my outline, that sold the outline. People said, “Wow. Orgy scene.” So I wrote the dialogue, and where it's set — everything up to where I wrote, “Athena presses the wrong button and kicks off an orgy. The song should be about the orgy.” Everything else is Rachel, and the choreographer, Danielle Fusco, and of course the cast. I never said, “We're going to have three different couples.” It was Rachel's vision: We're going to have a straight couple, a gay couple, a lesbian couple. I think that was beautiful. And the hammock is like, wow. That was all them. That was not me.

The spinning hammock was incredible.
That was all them.

“The Anthem” is playing through July 6 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York City.