Zoe Sarnak is doing pretty well for a recent college graduate. Just three years after graduating with a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Harvard, she’s about to bring her first musical, A Lasting Impression, to the New York stage. Relax—she also minored in music. Following a staged reading of the show at Pace University, A Lasting Impression brings a tale of artistic pursuit and struggle to a place that has seen its fair share of creative undertakings: the New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater, where it runs through August 26. I sat down with Sarnak to talk about the process of bringing her musical to the stage, the influences who inspired her to compose music, and how her passion and craft have been a constant in her post-graduate life.
How long have you been rehearsing for this production?
The shortest process ever. We started, basically, at the beginning of the month. We cast just in the week before that, so it’s been very whirlwind and crazy in the best way.
So is this the second production, after the Pace University version?
I call the Pace production a showcase. It was semi-off-book. It was staged so they weren’t at music stands, and it wasn’t like reading style, but the process was so fast, and it was really designed to workshop the piece itself. Most of the actors were on-book. In fact, the director was like, “Please stay on-book.” This is the first fully staged production.
Is anyone from that production involved?
Two of the cast members from that Pace production are now in this production. There’s this really cool pseudo-ensemble. Part of the concept of the show is that all the music is the main character’s music, so essentially the voices in her head are the singers in the band. They’re a character in the show, but they are also part of the pit. And those two girls were both part of the Pace production.
You went to school for science and you were a music minor. Was music something you had always had a passion on the side?
I sort of think about it this way—are you a Sex and the City person? There’s this thing they call “secret single behavior,” and it’s like the things that you would never do if somebody else was around. Music was my secret single behavior. No one really knew I wrote music, and I didn’t start my minor until junior year. It was one of those things that I always knew I wanted to do but felt… I was scared, I think, and I was great at science and knew that would be a smart thing to do, and I even started applying to medical school. I think [my first show] The Quad totally changed my life, because it was only through accidentally following through and writing and finishing a show that I was like, “Oh God, I have to do this.”
What did your studies entail?
Theory, composition. It was very little to do with musical theater. It was very much understanding harmony structure and counterpoint. In my senior year, I got to do the orchestrations for The Quad. I came to the city shamefully behind on my musical theater studies and have been playing catch-up in a great way. Like, I had never heard the music of Company or actually most of Sondheim, really. And that’s insane! Obviously. That’s insane. It’s weird because if you meet people who grew up in the city, they know that stuff because it’s always revived. I’m from New Jersey, and it’s amazing that there was never the regional production of Company there.
I was going to ask you about Stephen Sondheim because the subject matter of this show is one he has touched on often, with Sunday in the Park with George and Merrily We Roll Along. Were there other shows or films that dealt with the idea of pursuing artistic endeavors that inspired you?
I think that, for me, the idea of structure and craft is very informed by the Sondheim vision of theater. And how he speaks about it in Sunday in the Park as a very precise thing. I think how I see the musical side of things as much more informed by the music industry and figures like Janis Joplin and this idea of just being overwhelmed by musical passion. We all write what we know, and I think a lot of that really comes from my own experience.
Did you study playwriting, or is that something you just started doing?
No, is the short answer. I read a lot of plays. I was never really in shows, so I don’t come from that perspective; it’s one of the reasons why I’m so like in awe of the work that directors and actors do. I think that’s something I’m learning through doing and through reading, because seeing shows is really helpful as well as seeing what is on the page that correlates.
Is that how you began writing music, too? Just replicating what you saw or heard?
Certainly subconsciously. I was writing music when I was in seventh grade, my diary version of it. Other people painted and whatever it is, I think that I can now look back and hear what I wrote and go, OK, I had the Beatles playing in my household growing up and I hear that. My mother actually really prefers classical music; I listened to a lot of that and it seeps into some of the chord structure that I use. Or jazz; I studied jazz. But it was never like, Oh I want this song to sound like this and so I’m going to study that song and apply it. Except…there’s a song in the show called “Now Soon Later,” which I sort of got the idea from “Now / Later / Soon” in A Light Night Music, so that’s a little bit of an homage to Sondheim.
Can you maybe name three people who have influence you, both on the pop side and the musical theater side?
The Beatles have to be the top of the list. How many people give that answer? But it’s right, it’s the correct answer—it just is. I think that Sara Bareilles is one of the greatest living songwriters right now and does not get appreciated as such because she happens to write from a pop place. I mean, she’s so beautifully poetic. The lyrics of “Gravity”: “You hold me without touch, you keep me without chains.” That’s wonderful writing. I’ve always attached to like ’90s bands like Marcy’s Playground, Third Eye Blind, and Matchbox 20, and—speaking of musical theater crossers—Duncan Sheik. And I am definitely a songwriter person, and I love Billy Joel and Elton John. On the musical theater side, my Beatles equivalent is Rent. I was younger when it first came out, but I’ve seen it so many times. That score is just the most moving piece of cathartic musical theater, and if you don’t feel something then you’re not alive, you know? I can understand that it’s a cliché answer but I have to give it because it’s just true.