“We Americans love to have a thing explained,” muses the character Jack Scan in Mac Wellman’s 2000 novel, Annie Salem: An American Tale.
“And I would not be one to go back to nature, because all things being equal, I would rather live in a house than in the woods, and I like my fast cars, cheeseburgers, snazzy shoes, and all the rest. Pop music. Pretty girls and their pretty clothes.”
But Jack resists the easy way of doing things. He doesn’t care much for explanations that make too tidy sense of the world. In the novel, he travels to Mars.
“The plot is hard to unravel,” said composer Heather Christian on translating the novel to musical theater. “Trying to figure out how to get—politically and historically—the metaphor of what Mac is doing with the Martian substitution myth. But musically, Mac’s language is already so colorful and so full of information that it’s really informed the way everything has been written.”
Christian has been working for two years, off and on, with playwright Rachel Chavkin to wrestle Annie Salem to the boards. They are not quite there.
“The first act is on Earth, the second act is on Mars,” Christian said. “The first act has its feet staunchly in the American canon. In the Mars section, I’m using Pink Floyd and Busta Rhymes and Bjork and other people who might actually be Martian. So it’s more operatic in sensibility, and more chaotic in sound.”
That kind of chaos needs to be shaped physically, with voices and bodies on stage in real time. Composing alone on a piano only goes so far.
Annie Salem is one of four emerging musicals featured in this week’s Polyphone festival of new musical theater. The University of the Arts created the festival last year as a way to put UArts theater students in the same room with professionals as they develop original work.
The four musicals—Material World, Sometimes in Prague, Finn the Fearless, and Annie Salem—were selected in part for their phase of development. All are in a liminal stage of their lives, having had some kind of reading or semi-public workshop performance, but none could be said to be finished.
They will be presented as concerts, with full cast, orchestration, and theatrical lighting, but no costumes or sets. They will be rotated between two performances spaces—the Merriam Theater and Art Bank—for a week. Saturday will be a Marathon Day, with all four musicals performed back-to-back.
A fifth presentation on the roster, Chorus Line, is a concert revival of a once-experimental musical that has become a Broadway chestnut.
“I wanted to bring master artists at the cutting edge, engaged with deep and meaningful experimentation with the medium, to meet with students,” said festival producer Joanne Settle. “I mean real experimentation. Something you’re not sure is going to work, or if it’s going to work, you’re not sure how.”
Although the festival was put together almost on a whim last year—Settle and her artistic director Cesar Alvarez were seeking a way to use an empty Merriam Theater for two weeks—it became an instant success. Two shows from that festival are about to have their production premieres—Total Bent by the team Heidi Rodewald and Stew will be produced at New York’s Public Theater in May (directed by Settle), and Alvarez’ Elementary Space Time Show will premiere at next fall’s Fringe Festival in Philadelphia.
“I was overwhelmed with people trying to submit to the festival,” said Settle of this year’s festival. “’American Theater’ will cover the festival. The Marathon Day came out of demand—people really want to see this new work developed in this new way. We’re hoping to move the needle on the kind of work that can be produced.”