by Doug Hamilton
SGN Contributing Writer
THE HOURS OF LIFE
CORNISH STUDIO THEATRE
Why does Shakespeare get all the attention? Isn't it time we got some back story on the Poe? Pinch yourself. Theatre22's world premier of The Hours of Life, an original musical based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe, arrives at Cornish Studio Theatre at Seattle Center on December 5! And it is written, directed, produced and composed by all local talent. Written/composed by accomplished local musical playwright Paul Lewis, and produced/directed by award winning Producer/Director Corey McDaniel, here's what not to expect: dancing. Do not expect Edgar Allan Poe to come out high-kicking like Peter Griffin in the opening number of 'Family Guy.' Just don't. Here's what to expect: expect to be moved like a black cloud drifting on a charcoal sky.
'It is dark, but also romantic. And darkly comic, ultimately tragic,' said playwright Paul Lewis about the play. 'He had a very turbulent and harrowing childhood. The things that happened to him really informed his work. So, it has a dark tone to it, but not, I think, unnecessarily dark. I didn't set out to do a biopic. I don't like biopics. Never have. But I wanted to deal with just one segment of his life. But maybe also open up references to his past that would have informed his work.' Mr. Lewis has written five musicals.
'When we first did the reading in 2011 on Bainbridge, I was so in love with the music, with some of the songs. There are some that, even to this day, I will hear in rehearsal all the time, and still I get chills and a little tear. Some of these songs are just incredibly moving,' said Producer/Director Corey McDaniel. 'As I'm seeing this unfold, it is really a story about the hands of fate - about the gears and levers of fate. And it involves two American poets, and through those avenues of telling those stories, we get a glimpse of who Poe was; and why he was like he was or how we think he might have been.'
Doug: So, a musical about Edgar Allan Poe, right? Seems a bit incongruous. What brought about the inspiration?
Paul: It started about four-plus years ago. Of course, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most important writers, and I wanted to explore a chapter in his life that is not very well known. A friend who is a writer inspired me to write a musical about it. It is the chapter of Poe's romance with a Rhode Island poet named Helen Whitman. So that's how it came about, and it grew as a staged reading and a workshop production, both of which were directed by Corey, and its script has evolved over several years.
Doug: Based on your spring production of The Lisbon Traviata, we fully expect Theatre22 will produce a stellar show despite not having the million dollar budget it takes to get some musicals to the stage in this town. What's different this time around in terms of logistics?
Corey: Logistically speaking, this is the first time I've directed and co-produced my own show. So that's a level of new intensity. [Chuckles.] It is an incredibly large group of people. We've got 36 people attached. 15 singer actors, 5 musicians, a tech team. It is much much larger. The venue is larger. Everything is larger because it is a musical. And it is a new work, so rather than concentrating each day in rehearsal solely on what needs to be cleaned or polished, it is a new work evolving, where we're constantly revising music, cues, harmonies, and script.
[Corey makes a small, elevated laugh somewhere between a titter and a sigh.]
Doug: Where are you rehearsing at now?
Corey: We're at TPS [Theatre Puget Sound].
Doug: So you are able to put it altogether in one place, and not have it all spread about?
Corey: Luckily, we've had the same room for the whole time. So yes.
Doug: Is this a period piece? Is it set in the time of Poe?
Paul: Yes, it is set in the 1840s.
Corey: The sets were designed by Robin Macartney; the same one who did Lisbon is doing our set and props. It is more of a minimalistic set. We are focusing a lot more on the music and the actors than the visuals.
Doug: How many acts?
Corey: Two acts and 17 musical numbers.
Paul: There is a lot of underscoring I wrote for the scenes that I scored cinematically with a live orchestra.
Doug: This is going to be a spectacle. I'm just really excited. And also that it is happening within our community. Tell me a little about casting - what that was like casting a musical in Seattle?
Corey: Uuuuhhhhhhm. Well, actually, we precast a good handful of people in Seattle. We knew in our Helen we had really found a woman who could successfully portray the Sarah Helen Whitman character. And then there were others that we wanted to plug in that we knew could not only act tour-de-force, but also sing it as well. So we did a little bit of pre-casting in that. And then, of course, the actual casting.
In casting calls it was difficult to find a large number of older men. Which is a struggle in this city. These are not male roles in their twenties, they are older male roles. It took a lot of effort. And our Poe was particularly difficult to cast of all. We had been catching plays, and catching musicals, trying hard to find somebody for months and months, and who we ended up landing was somebody we saw at a random show at Hale's Palladium, a place we usually never go to see an entertainment act. This male singer just happened to come on, and both me and my husband Alber saw it immediately, and said, 'Oh my gosh! That's him! He's our Poe!' So it was a few months of courting him, and auditioning him, and seeing if it would work out with him. And that's where we ended up going.
Doug: What's his name?
Corey: Brian Pucheu. He's a doll. He's lovely.
Doug: I understand that you wanted to write about that story, but what made you decide to do it as a musical?
Paul: I think what drove that decision was the romance - the love affair that this piece centers on. Love affairs always lend themselves to musicals, at least in my mind. I wanted to not go too far down the path of Poe, the gothic, tragic dark scary character. And instead look at other aspects of his life.
Doug: You've written four musicals before? What's that like? Do you basically come to a point in a scene and then say, 'This is where I want the song to move the story?'
Paul: It is different for every song. I feel like every song has a different narrative or trajectory of its own. Sometimes a song is born out of necessity. Because I have to get from place A to place B in the story. Or because, the classic saying in the musical theatre is that if a character has too many emotions that they can't speak it anymore, then they sing it. It is an expression of something intense going on with the character. Be it that character's love, passion or desire, or whatever. So sometimes it occurs very naturally and organically as an outgrowth of the dialogue that's happening. And sometimes, it is more of a vehicle to move one scene to the next. Each song has its own function and its own place in a musical. So it arrives by different means. There is a lot of rewriting. For the 17 songs in this musical, I've probably written fifty or sixty. There's so much that gets discarded. Or rewritten, but mostly discarded. Suddenly you realize that it doesn't fit, and that that melody no matter how lovely or striking, just doesn't move the story along. Yes, it is a waste of effort, but I tend to recycle a lot of my melodies, so they are always there for something else.
Doug: Is the score still evolving, or is that pretty much pinned down?
Paul: There is a lot of what I call underscoring. We're having to sync up the music with the actions of the live actors onstage. We don't know how that's going to line up until you do it. So mostly it's tweaks right now. It's more, 'How long can this particular piece of music go on?' We're past the point of any major rewritings right now.
Corey: Yes, we're beyond major rewriting. It is more key changes, octave changes, underscoring, cues. It is a lot of cue work. Like when someone needs to come in.
Paul: There have been some late line changes. A couple of them were suggested by the actors who are inhabiting their characters so authentically that they say to me and Corey, 'You know, I really want him to say this.' And it was usually a great call.
Perhaps it was fate that made this darkly poetic, yet romantically lyrical The Hours of Life find its premier in Seattle in December. The scene, the mood, have already been set by the weather. It was a long star-crossed journey that brought this work to the stage in this, Theatre22's inaugural season. (The other good news is that Theatre22 has become a guest Artist in Residence at the newly opened 12th Avenue Theatre, with two plays to be produced there in 2015 and slots lined up there through 2016.) Community members who want to support our local queer theatre are already pre-purchasing tickets to The Hours of Life in a spirit of great anticipation.
The show will be performed (for ten days only) at the Cornish Studio Theatre (at the Cornish Playhouse - formerly Intiman Theatre), 201 Mercer St. on Thursday, December 4 (preview) @ 8 p.m., Friday, December 5 (opening night) @ 8 p.m., Sat., 12/6 @ 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun., 12/7 @ 2 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, 12/9-12/12 @ 8 p.m., Saturday, 12/13 @ 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sunday, 12/14 @ 2 p.m. Tickets: $22-general; $14-senior/military/student; $11-TPS members. $5 minimum pay-what-you-can performances on 12/4 preview, 12/6 & 12/7 matinees, 12/13 & 12/14 matinees. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/858076 and at the door. www.theatre22.org.
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