By Ryan Pfeffer
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A 9-year-old girl with leukemia and a war correspondent kidnapped and bound in a Middle Eastern cell do not sound like typical subjects for American musicals, a form often associated with jubilance and escapism. They sound like more CNN headlines or Oscar-bait movies. But two musicals about just these subjects, Hostage Song and Dani Girl, will be featured in dramatic readings, on June 20 and 27 respectively, at the Theatre at Arts Garage.
"American musical theater has a pattern, often, of being simply entertainment-driven, and there's nothing wrong with that," Tyrrell says. "But I'm much more interested in a piece with substance, that explores issues that we have to deal with in our day-to-day lives. So what could be more compelling than a musical that's more or less ripped from the headlines about our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the story of a courageous young girl dealing with a life-threatening illness?"
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The musicals are part of the Arts Garage's debut "Summer Tune-Up" series, which began earlier this month. Tyrrell described the reaction to the first work in the series, the rousing, '60s-set Tinyard Hill, as "electric," despite — or perhaps because of — the absence of full-scale production elements.
"You put the set up on the stage and leave nothing to the imagination, but there's something about seeing a band working at a music stand and actors with scripts in hand that is so in-the-moment and so a part of the artistic process that it's a unique and rewarding kind of theater experience," Tyrrell says.
Audience imagination is central to the conceits of both of these unique approaches to the musical-theater form. In Hostage Song, which runs this Thursday, the main characters — the crusading journalist and a Pentagon employee — use music to express their fantasy lives as they're blindfolded and sequestered in the dark prison of an unknown country.
"Book writer Clay McLeod Chapman and I had been talking for a long time about finding a musical project that could deliver the intensity, intimacy, and emotional realism of a straight play," says Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the music and lyrics. "We started that process by asking ourselves, 'What would be the most unexpected — craziest — subject for a musical?' We tossed around several ideas, and this was the one that rose to the top."
Dani Girl, which will be performed June 27, is even more reliant on the audience to fill in its own visual gaps. In the story, about a 9-year-old leukemia patient's quest to comprehend her cancer, fantasy and reality commingle. A central character is Raph, Dani's imaginary friend/guardian angel, who comes to represent the physical embodiment of her cancer.
"Most of the musical takes place inside of Dani's imagination as she goes on this fantastical quest to find the answers to her questions," says book-and-lyrics writer Chris Dimond, who managed to find humor in this bleak scenario. "The performance can help to pull the audience in and to see what is going on in the characters' heads. That's the fun part of the reading format — allowing the audience to go along, particularly with a story that's so much about imagination."
Tyrrell has selected a topnotch cast for these concert readings, including Lindsey Forgey, Jeni Hacker, and Carbonell winner Nick Duckart, all of them learning both music and lyrics over a three-day rehearsal period, for the price of a small honorarium. A three-piece rock band of keyboard, guitar, and drums will provide the score. The rest is up to us.
"Our model here... allows people to focus in on the material, on the actors, on the performances, in a unique way that can rivet their attention if the quality of the work on the stage warrants it," Tyrrell says. "I would much rather do these different, thoughtful, perhaps edgy pieces and truly make people feel differently when they walk out of the theater than they felt when they walked in."