Divided loyalties, backbiting, and unrelenting pressure: They are all part of creating an original stage musical — and Matt Grue ought to know.
The artistic director of Ignition Theatre was part of a creative team that wrote Year After Year, a well-received musical about young adulthood that had its world premiere in Red Deer last spring.
During the intense and exhaustive creation process, Grue and his co-writers repeatedly came to loggerheads, sometimes experiencing almost overwhelming emotions. “You’re so passionate about the project . . . you begin hating each other as the nights grow later and the days grow longer. . . . There are insane emotions when you put your heart and soul into something.”
Having personally survived all the tension and trauma, Grue was amazed to see the same feelings accurately captured — to comic effect — in a published musical called [title of show], by Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book).
The unlikely off-Broadway hit of 2006 tracks the songwriting team of — guess who? — Jeff and Hunter, as they attempt to come up with a musical, pronto, to make a festival deadline.
The production follows the writers as they go through various stock plots and characters, and then negotiate an obstacle course of finding backers, casting singers, and dealing with publicity.
[title of show] is so funny, catchy and true to life that Grue immediately knew he wanted to direct it.
“It really rang true. . . . The dialogue feels so spontaneous and improvised, I really wanted to be their friend.”
Then there’s the music, which is hummable and seems simple enough, but is actually beautifully arranged into complex four-part harmonies, said Grue.
[title of show] opens on Thursday and will be the last production at The Matchbox before it closes and Ignition Theatre moves to a new space upstairs at the Memorial Centre in the fall.
While the musical definitely falls into theatre-geek territory because of its insider subject matter, Grue believes it will appeal to anyone who has ever given full energy to anything.
“It has a universal message about pursuing your dream and all the compromises you have to make along the way.”
Many of the situations are flat-out funny, he said.
For instance, Jeff and Hunter struggle with how many swear words they can put into the show before the “matinee ladies” get upset.
Another conundrum they grapple with is what to do when one of the actors, their good friend Heidi, lands a role in The Little Mermaid.
When a search begins for a higher-profile replacement, Heidi begins feeling like she’s being shunted aside in favour of a brighter Broadway star.
“Tensions run high,” said Grue, whenever loyalties become divided between friendship and the theatrical venture.
[title of show] showcases what can be done with little money, lots of fun ideas, and a set that contains only four chairs and a keyboard.
Grue said this was his biggest challenge — how to come up with interesting movements for the four-person cast with so few set pieces. “I can’t have someone walk over to the magazine rack because there isn’t one.”
Another challenge was building a buddy-buddy rapport between actors in the production who don’t share the same history of real-life friendship as Jeff and Hunter, and their cast-mates in the musical, Heidi and Susan.
“This comes over time, as people become familiar with each other’s style,” said Grue. “But it’s coming, it’s definitely progressing with rehearsals!”