Through a series of e-mails and a secretly recorded Skype session with the creative principals, Tor.com has learned that New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi is planning a multi-million dollar musical theater version of the Hugo-nominated tale “Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City”—and that this planned musical extravaganza may already have reached a creative and financial crisis.
The cache of e-mails obtained by Tor.com show an author at first enthusiastically engaged in the creative process of a show that he optimistically described as “Bigger than Rent and Urinetown combined (as unsanitary as that sounds)” but who then quickly found himself overwhelmed by the demands of his financial backers and locked in struggles with his various creative partners. Observers close to events describe Scalzi as having retreated into a “Nixon-like world of paranoia and delusion,” from which he refuses to emerge.
The tale of the musical begins in early April of 2012, shortly after “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons,” originally published on Tor.com as an “April Fool’s” joke, was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, only the second April Fool’s joke to be so nominated, after 1963’s Best Dramatic Presentation nominee Last Year at Marienbad. At that time, Scalzi was approached by New York theatrical producer Jules Kahn. “I have a number of investors interested in having ‘Shadow War’ come to the Great White Way,’” Kahn wrote to Scalzi, referring to the common theatrical term for Broadway. Kahn declined to name the investors but noted that several of them had made their fortunes in the tech world “in companies that rhyme with Smaceschnook and Floogle,” he wrote.
Scalzi was apparently initially skeptical of Kahn. “Dude, you’re aware ‘Shadow War’ is an April Fool’s joke, right?” Scalzi wrote. “The novels don’t exist. There’s nothing to make a musical out of.”
“That’s the magic of it,” Kahn wrote back. Kahn then offered what he described as a “meta” narrative concept: A musical about the fact that “Shadow War of the Night Dragons” was an April Fool’s joke which had gotten out of hand and taken on a life of its own. Kahn cited the story’s recent Hugo nomination and Scalzi’s anecdote of a film producer inquiring after the rights to the ‘Shadow War’ series when the initial story was published. “It’s all there,” Kahn said, pointing to popular musical shows like Avenue Q and Spamalot as examples of musicals where the audience was “in on the joke.”
Scalzi was still unconvinced. “Look, I’ve got a new book coming out, and I’m president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,” he wrote back to Kahn. “Even if I believed you were serious, I don’t have the time for this. I wouldn’t have the time if you offered me a million dollars.”
“How about 2.5 million dollars?” Kahn wrote back.
“Oh, fine,” Scalzi replied, almost immediately.
In fact, records show Scalzi received an initial $7 million payment from his investors, plus promises of substantial creative control over the direction of the project. Scalzi immediately went to work, hiring from the theatrical world’s “A”-list of creatives, and scoring a coup by luring noted playwright and director Neil LaBute from his own hotly-anticipated theatrical project Not the Bees: An Evening With Nicolas Cage, to take on directing and the scripting of the libretto. “There is no possible way this incredible musical theater plan could ever fail,” Scalzi wrote, to a friend, in an e-mail in late May of 2012.
However, as the summer progressed cracks began to show in the creative façade. Kahn began communicating casting and creative “suggestions” from the investors to Scalzi, who was initially receptive to new ideas but became increasingly agitated as the suggestions continued. “Please tell the backers that I don’t care whether Larry Page thinks the play would be better if the roles were performed by actors covered in marshmallow Peeps,” Scalzi wrote, in early July 2012. “One, Larry Page is not the boss of me, and I don’t care what happens to my PageRank by saying that. Two, marshmallow Peeps under blistering hot stage lights? Bad idea, and we’d never get the actors to do every night and twice on Sunday. Three, seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people, Jules? You’re supposed to keep these idiots off my back.”
Shortly thereafter LaBute left the project, citing “creative disagreements” with Scalzi. The rumor among those close to LaBute was that the two men nearly came to blows after Scalzi accused LaBute of drinking his milkshake during a lunch meeting. “You asshole, you can’t even get your director in-jokes right,” LaBute reportedly said, and stormed out, never to return.
LaBute was briefly replaced in the project by nine-time Tony Award-winner Mike Nichols, with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and former college classmate of Scalzi) David Auburn handling the book. But in September 2012, Scalzi, reportedly despondent about the defeat of “Shadow War” in its Hugo Award category, chased both men from the theater—and the project—by swinging his Campbell Award plaque at them, yelling “Taste the cheeseboard, you bastards,” as they ran. Auburn reportedly was slightly injured as he shielded the octogenarian Nichols from Scalzi’s wild flailings; Scalzi later settled with Auburn out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Things reached a head in early 2013 when Scalzi had a falling out with Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo, of the comedy musical group “Paul and Storm,” who Scalzi had tapped to write the songs for the “Shadow War” project. The three had worked together previously, with Sabourin and DiCostanzo penning their hit song “Fuzzy Man” for Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation novel, and Scalzi appearing at “w00tstock,” a geek-oriented revue show which Sabourin and DiCostanzo hosted along with television personalities Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage.”
However, as the secretly recorded work session accompanying this article shows, the friendly collaboration between the three men quickly became acrimonious and bitter.
Sabourin and DiCostanzo spoke with Tor.com directly about their deteriorating relationship with Scalzi. “At first John seemed really excited by our musical ideas, and why wouldn’t he be?” Sabourin said. “We were giving him some really awesome stuff—a Jim Steinman-meet-Satan’s Alley rock and roll fantasia that was going to knock the critics right on their asses. But then suddenly he became moody and uncommunicative.”
“We think it was a crippling cough medicine addiction,” DiCostanzo said.
“’Tapping the ‘Tapp,’ we called it,” Sabourin said.
“Or ‘tossing the ‘Tussin,” DiCostanzo said.
“Which is also the name of our Mazzy Star cover band,” Sabourin said.
“The point is, it became clear he had issues that were keeping him from recognizing the brilliance of our work, so we departed the project, and gave him Dr. Drew’s private e-mail address, so he could get the help he needed,” DiCostanzo said.
That help, it seems, has not been forthcoming. Indeed, reached by Tor.com via e-mail for comment, Scalzi responded with a rambling, disjointed screed that did not touch on “Shadow War of the Night Dragons” the musical, but offered up an “enemies list,” which included Sabourin, DiCostanzo, Kahn, LaBute, Nichols and Auburn, various online critics, several professionals in the publishing industry, the small island nation of Turks and Caicos, and fifth president of the United States of America James Monroe. “I WILL MAKE REFRESHING SMOOTHIES OF THEIR BONES,” Scalzi wrote (all caps his), in one of the more coherent sentences.
At press time, producer Jules Kahn would not comment on the “Shadow War” musical’s alleged woes, but described Scalzi as an “idiosyncratic, quirky genius” whose “vision of the shadow war of night dragons, and of April Fool’s jokes, would take audiences places they had never been before.” He would not say when the completed musical would arrive on a Broadway stage, but noted previews were scheduled for later in the year in Dayton and Sarasota, Florida.
“We still wish John and the production all the best,” said Sabourin. “And in the meantime, I’ll just note that since Scalzi never actually paid us for our work, two of the songs we composed for the musical are now available for sale on the paulandstorm.com Web site. Please buy them. Scalzi took all our money for purple drank.”
Tor.com has also obtained audio from early recording sessions of the troubled production. The recording paints a clear picture of the confusion surrounding the musical: