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Animated Musical About Drink Tax to Be Awash in Satire

July 28, 2008

By Justin Vellucci, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 28–Come up with a word that rhymes with “drink tax.”

Marshall Slayton and Stephen Tammearu might find a few up their sleeves. The twenty-something Pittsburghers are converting the never-ending news story and tax battle into an animated musical, complete with frustrated tavern-dwellers and a politician modeled on Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

“I wanted to make a satire … so I asked myself, ‘What’s a really good social issue to talk about right now?’ ” said Slayton, 22, of Squirrel Hill.

Forget Iraq, global warming or the race for the White House. The answer to Slayton was clear: Fashion a farce around the 10 percent drink tax, which is generating millions of dollars for Port Authority.

“It was just a touchy subject, so it spoke out to so many angles,” said Tammearu, 22, of Squirrel Hill.

Why so touchy? Well, the controversial tax, paired with a $2-a-day rental car surcharge, is on pace to raise more than the $30 million expected, but restaurateurs claim business is down. In the meantime, County Council and Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation are racing to see who will be the first — or only — group to put a question slashing the tax on the Nov. 4 ballot. And a growing number of politicians have turned the issue into a fiery debate over raising people’s property taxes.

So, enter a bit of comedy.

The 15- to 20-minute film — working title: “Beer, The Musical” — is Slayton’s master’s thesis at Chatham University and, for all the potential Iron City-chugging yinzer jokes, Slayton and Tammearu remain focused on their cinematic craft.

Rough drafts of the score, which offers its share of swooning synthesizers, owe more to composers John Williams or Hans Zimmer than the protest folk of “Drink Tax Song,” posted on YouTube by Terry Griffith of Beechview.

The duo are negotiating with an animator, and the whole project could be wrapped up by December.

In the musical, viewers follow Kevin Allen, a beer connoisseur whose life takes a turn for the better — job promotions take the place of hangovers — after the drink tax discourages him from downing so many brews. But Allen’s turnaround frustrates him. He simply loves lager too much to let it go.

Slayton, the writer, and Tammearu, the composer, acknowledge what some call Onorato’s larger political ambitions. In the end of the musical, Shawn Casey, the Onorato stand-in, will be elected to the U.S. Senate.

“We give both sides a fair jab,” Slayton said.

Slayton and Tammearu are far from the first Americans to stage plays or create films ripped from the headlines, said Bruce McConachie, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s theater department. But they might be among a small minority tackling politics on the county level.

“It’s pretty unusual for professional playwrights … to dabble in a lot of local politics,” McConachie said. “Because, what do you do when it closes in Pittsburgh? …. The national market for a lot of this stuff, it’s awful hard to do a lot with local politics.”

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