Posted By Claire on June 21, 2021Thank you so much to Jessy Tomsko, the composer and lyricist for the musical “BOLEYN”, and the team for writing this guest article for us and telling us more about this wonderful project. It’s lovely that Anne is still inspiring people today.
Over to Jessy…
“BOLEYN” seeks to smash the caricature and give Anne Boleyn the real voice we know she had.
The creative team of the new musical BOLEYN has been on a mission for the past five years. Their objective? Dig through five centuries of history, rumors, tall tales, and facts to uncover who Anne Boleyn truly was, and then bring her to the stage to finally be the protagonist in her own story. Anne Boleyn had a real voice, and the time has come to hear it. Set to music, of course.
American composer/lyricist Jessy Tomsko has always been a history buff – truly reveling in the people and stories that seem larger than life, too wild to be true – and yet true they are. She’s a sucker for a guided tour or a historical podcast, feels utterly at home in a medieval castle, and if you ever go to a museum with her, be prepared to stop and read every plaque. In 2016, Jessy was up late writing one Spring night, and was suddenly struck by an odd question, entirely out of the blue: “What if Anne Boleyn were a singer/songwriter today, and wrote a folk song about her life as she awaited execution, confined within the Tower of London?” It seemed so completely random, Jessy almost laughed it off. But, always intrigued by a challenging writing prompt, she decided to run with it. The song she wrote that night became the inspiration for BOLEYN.
The writing and research process was, to say the least, a daunting endeavor. How does one begin to tell a story that spans over two decades five hundred years in the past, is filled with countless players, plot twists and turns, inexplicable human behaviors, eyewitness accounts, hearsay and rumors, all in the context of the maze of 16th century European politics, religion, and the dangerous chess board that was the Tudor court – and distill it all down to two and a half hours or so of fast-paced, palatable, musicalized, gut-wrenching, yet highly entertaining theatre that can be enjoyed by people everywhere – many of whom think (either rightly or wrongly) they already know the story?
To help with this massive undertaking, Jessy enlisted the help of her father, Steve Tomsko, a writer and fellow self-proclaimed history nerd, to take on the task of writing the musical’s script that would do real justice to and for this remarkable woman’s story. Together, they began voraciously devouring any and all Anne Boleyn materials, from contemporary chroniclers to modern websites, Tudor documentaries to Boleyn biographies, love letters housed in the Vatican to modern bodice-ripping fiction. Who was this Anne Boleyn? What exactly was it about her that transfixed and transformed all who knew her, in her own time and throughout the subsequent centuries? Jessy and Steve are continually amazed at how Anne has endured, and how she has come to mean many different things to many different people; this woman whose legacy, memory, and very existence her husband desired to erase, and did everything in his power to ensure – but ultimately couldn’t.
While Steve set about crafting a script for the narrative they had developed (and would continue to develop, rewrite, and rearrange over the next five years), Jessy dove into the musical world she envisioned: folk rock meets Renaissance meets singer/songwriter with a classic musical theatre sensibility! Jessy grew up listening to the great musicals of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, while also developing an affinity for the conversational, intimate style of the singer/songwriters we all know and love – household names like Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel, and more contemporary artists like Hozier and Brandi Carlile. Add in a classical music education with an emphasis on choral music and music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and you might get somewhat of an idea of the inspiration that has been with her while inventing the musical landscape of this show.
After two years of researching and writing, BOLEYN caught the attention of Broadway director Mia Walker (Jagged Little Pill, Waitress, Pippin, Finding Neverland), who was very excited about the music and the prospect of giving this woman who was villainized for so many years a fresh narrative – one that does not depict her as the caricature we have often seen: power-hungry, over-sexed, vindictive, and dumbed down. A pretty face and luscious figure leading Henry VIII around like one might walk a dog on a leash. As the team continued to research and build their narrative, they soon discovered that this skewed picture of Boleyn could not be further from the truth. But such has often been the lot of ambitious women throughout the ages. An ambitious woman needs ulterior motives. An ambitious woman needs sex appeal. An ambitious woman needs the approval of the men around her. Such a woman has always made the world a little uncomfortable, especially in the 16th century when she dared to step outside of the domestic sphere, and sought to have a say in her own destiny.
Mia soon invited aboard her WAITRESS colleague, orchestrator Adam Michael Kaufman, who was equally thrilled at the possibility of bringing this story to life in a new way. By mid 2018, the core team was complete, and they got to work reshaping and refining the story, script, and music, often making huge changes, rearranging the puzzle, and completely returning to the drawing board on more than one occasion.
Along the way, Jessy took a trip to London, where she was able to experience Anne Boleyn’s story in a personal way that deeply inspired and affected Jessy’s perception of these seemingly larger-than-life historical people, places, and events. Walking in Anne’s footsteps, Jessy explored such significant locations in Anne’s journey as her family home at Hever Castle, the favorite royal palace of Hampton Court, and of course, the infamous fortress where Anne’s life came to an abrupt and murderous end: the Tower of London. It was surreal to be there at the Tower, walking the grounds of the place that had first popped into Jessy’s mind that fateful Spring night in 2016 – this place where Anne Boleyn lived out her final hours, a place Jessy herself had never before been, and yet felt compelled, even urged, to tell this story and depict it in a new light.
Throughout 2018 and 2019, BOLEYN did several readings with actors and showcased material at such places in New York City as the Musical Theatre Factory, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, and NY Theatre Barn. When the pandemic hit, progress certainly slowed, though did not come to a halt, as the team used the time to rework problematic moments in their story, rethink some character choices, and refine their overall focus. Jessy also launched the BOLEYN social media, and the team began releasing videos of some of the songs from the show that they are very excited about, working with such stellar Broadway performers as Jackie Burns (Wicked), and Jane Bruce (Jagged Little Pill).
“I’m a huge Tudor fan,” you may be thinking. “Who are the players in this show? How can you possibly include everyone??” Glad you asked. While there were earlier drafts in which the writers literally tried to include every prominent Tudor figure they could think of, you can imagine it was a bit of a kerfuffle, and could easily become rather taxing on an audience, especially when every other character seems to be named Mary or Thomas. Thus, some cutting and combining had to be done for dramatic and timing purposes, but they’ve tried to stay as true to historical events as it is possible to do within the musical theatre format. They have also dug into the holes of history, imagining what could have happened behind closed doors. In addition to the obvious main characters, audiences will encounter some other Tudor heavyweights and familiar faces, like Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon, George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Mary Boleyn, even Margaret of Austria, among others. The story follows our Anne from the time she leaves for her continental education in 1513, through her adult years as Henry VIII’s love interest, wife and queen, and then finally victim, as she meets her tragic end in 1536.
The story doesn’t hold back – we see Boleyn as a real person, a human being, with all her flaws, all her intelligence, her needs and wants, and all her heart. We see her make mistakes, stand up for her beliefs, and become a mother, knowing her daughter will do what she herself could not. This musical is about injustice, corruption, power, love, resilience – but above all, this is a story about bravery. The creative team of BOLEYN are so excited to introduce the world to the Anne Boleyn they have come to know and love. They are excited to give Anne back her voice, in all its truthful, messy, conflicted, beautiful glory. The time has come.
And here is a video of Jackie Burns performing “To Be Brave”, Anne Boleyn’s final song before her execution:
And here is Jane Bruce performing Katherine of Aragon’s song “Talk to the Ghosts”: