New Ground Theatre, which this season has produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Wit and Proof, will next month stage a musical about teen suicide. Not only that, but the script of said musical was written by the company's artistic director, Chris Jansen.
On the surface, this decision could be one of two things: an act of ego (My play is as good as those!) or an act of self-flagellation (I deserve to be ripped to shreds!). Alternatively, it could simply be a leap of faith, a bold choice meant to inspire others.
And that's how the playwright is treating it. After she'd made the decision to include her musical in the New Ground season, Jansen realized that she had put her work next to plays that have drawn worldwide acclaim. "I started wondering if I'd lost my mind," she said last week.
There are perfectly good reasons for the inclusion of Journey for a Reason into New Ground's season. For one thing, it fits well thematically with a season heavy with mortality, grief, and loss (Wit and Proof) and other serious issues. (Spinning Into Butter deals with racism on a college campus.)
Beyond that, Journey for a Reason represents New Ground's first foray into producing the work of local playwrights. "I want to do original stuff at New Ground," Jansen said. "I'm finding so far that there aren't a lot of playwrights here. I kind of wanted to say, 'I'll go first.'" Jansen is also directing the play.
On the upside, it's easy to obtain the rights to something one wrote. And, of course, "I know the script inside and out," Jansen said. "I know exactly how I want it to go." Everything else is a risk, because whatever fault people find with the production - from the choice of material to the dialogue to the music to the quality of the performance - reflects on Jansen and her collaborators. All blame lands squarely on her shoulders. That takes guts, and she sounds anxious about it.
But there's also the incredible potential for reward. If it goes well, if the audience responds to the work, then Jansen can claim a lion's share of the credit.
Jansen seems hesitant to brand her work a musical about teen suicide, but that's exactly what it is. This isn't a drama in which somebody commits suicide; it's a drama exclusively about a person killing herself. Although the subject matter is grim, Jansen stresses that "it's not a downer." There's humor in the work, she said.
The script's main conceit will immediately bring to mind classics of page and screen, particularly Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Sara is visited by her dead friend Laura, and expresses a desire to figure out why she killed herself. "If life was like the 7-Eleven, there'd be a video camera on us the whole time," Sara explains. "Then, if we needed to, we could just play it back. We could see what we missed at the time."
Laura invites Sara to take a trip through their lives in search of clues to why she killed herself. "Think of it as a kind of journey," Laura says. "We'll look at everything that happened. We'll find your reason for you."
This flashback structure is a stroke of genius. Unlike the guides of Scrooge or George Bailey, Laura has a real stake in getting her friend to understand what happened. As she tells Sara at the beginning of the play, "You're holding me back. ... You're holding yourself back."
As in the aforementioned classics, Journey for a Reason strings together vignettes, in this case showing Laura withdrawing from her friends or protecting her little brother from an abusive father, for example. Where it pays off is in the final scene, as it becomes clear that unlike with Scrooge or George Bailey, there will never be an epiphany with Sara; she will never understand. And the scene offers an interesting reversal, as Laura begins to see for the first time the effects of her actions; the guide becomes the guided.
The musical got its start nearly 20 years ago. In 1985, Jansen got a job at a performing-arts camp in Boston, and it was suggested that she and another staff member, Andrew Wilder, write a show. They did, and have since collaborated on two more pieces: Journey for a Reason (initially written in 1986) and The Turnip (1988). Jansen wrote the scripts, and Wilder wrote the music. (Jansen has written roughly five full-length plays and 20 one-acts, but these three works with Wilder remain her only collaborations.)
Jansen and Wilder started with an outline, from which the composer would "figure out places for the song to go," she said. Next came a rough draft of the script, and when that was done, Wilder started working on the songs. "The song should advance the plot," Jansen said. "That's what we try to do. You learn something with each song."
The play was performed once at the arts camp, and Jansen re-wrote it after that production. When she picked it up again in the past few years, she had a reaction familiar to writers around the world: "I was horrified," she said. So began another round of revisions. "I think it's much better than it was," she said. And, of course, she's protective of it. "This is my baby," she said. "I like it."
But she's still not satisfied. "The lyrics aren't where I want them to be now," she said.
Wilder, now a composer and conductor in New York, had planned two visits to the Quad Cities to assist with the production, but both fell through. "We're still hoping he'll slide in," Jansen said. The playwright describes her relationship with her collaborator as "really positive. I don't think I've ever had an argument with Andy. ... It's almost like having half the work done for you."
The musical's cast has been pared down to 10, the result of art bending to practical reality - namely money - but in the end improving because of it. "I killed three people when we started," Jansen said. "When you're paying them [the actors], you find out who's important."
The characters include one boy, eight teenagers, and one adult, so to the peril of directing her own musical Jansen has added working with a young cast. "The challenging part is you've got to be teaching young performers about commitment," she said - things unrelated to performance.
But the cast has been helpful as the work has taken its final shape. Jansen relates that questions from one actress have resulted in changes to the final scene, and even the act of casting has had a positive effect. Jansen said she'd never liked her one adult character - the school-newspaper adviser - but then she got an e-mail from Susan McPeters asking about a role in the production. "When I thought of Susan McPeters, I had the character," Jansen said.
And so it goes that even this close to the production, Journey's journey still isn't quite complete.
Journey for a Reason will be performed June 19 to 22 and 26 to 29 at Rivermont Collegiate in Bettendorf. For more information, visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org). Tickets are $12 for adults and can be reserved by calling (563)326-7529.
Lincoln Gets the Musical Treatment from Local Teen
Journey for a Reason isn't the only locally written musical on tap for this summer. And it's not the only one that might seem a little strange.
Derek Bertelsen, a 17-year-old from Aledo who just graduated from high school, has written the 19-song musical Abraham! , about none other than Abraham Lincoln. He'll perform the musical in workshop form on Friday, May 30, at 7 p.m. at Quad City Arts.
Bertelsen, who will study theatre in the fall at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, started the play in August 2001. "I thought this would give me a better understanding of how a show is put together," he said of the project.
The teenager has always been fascinated by Lincoln, so the 16th president of the United States seemed a natural subject. "Most of it is done," he said. "I'm still working on the script."
The workshop will involve Bertelsen and a piano, "singing the songs and telling the story," he said. That pared-down approach is meant to generate feedback on what he's got so far, so he can continue to improve it. "I just want to know what people think about it," he said.
This is a long-term process for Bertelsen, who noted that Cats was in workshops for eight years. "This isn't something you do overnight," he said. "It takes time and patience." He hopes to do another workshop in August and is interested in staging a full local production some time in the next few years.
"It's important for the Quad Cities to get some local work out there," he said.
Other Musical Offerings This Summer
In addition to the locally written musicals Journey for a Reason and Abraham! , theatre organizations around the Quad Cities are offering plenty of musicals this summer for your enjoyment.
Circa '21 's Fiddler on the Roof runs through May 31 and is followed by Bob Almighty (June 6 through July 19) and Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother (July 25 through September 13). It will also offer the children's musical Little Red Riding Hood's Big Adventure! (August 4 though 16).
The Quad City Music Guild will feature Titanic: A New Musical (June 13 through 22), Kiss Me Kate (July 11 through 20), and State Fair (August 8 through 17).
The lineup at Clinton Area Showboat Theatre includes My Fair Lady (June 5 through 15), Dirty Blonde (June 19 through 29), Phantom (July 9 through 19), Clap Trap (July 24 through August 3), and Oliver! (August 7 through 17).
The Music Man will be performed at North School High School (July 18 through 26).
Fans of opera can see Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury, performed by Opera@Augustana at Rock Island's Lincoln Park (June 14 through 22) or Otello at Theatre Cedar Rapids (June 13 through 15). Theatre Cedar Rapids is also offering La Cage Aux Folles (July 11 through 26).
And in the category of strange but true, Ghostlight Theatre is planning to perform a country-and-western-style adaptation of Wagner's Ring cycle, Das Barbecu. The production is set for North High School the last weekend of August and the first weekend of September.