Where do new musicals come from? Meet the creators of The Erlking and Conjoined at the Fringe

Seth Gilfillan and Josh Travnik in Conjoined: A New Musical. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Where do new musicals come from anyhow? The 2022 Fringe has a surprising number. What sort of theatre  artists are moved to complicate their lives immeasurably by channelling their storytelling through music and lyrics?

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12thnight caught up with a couple of them this month, agile, innovative, multi-faceted young musical theatre talents — triple threats both (book, music, lyrics)  — to ask. 

Chris Scott’s The Erlking is his own original, expansive departure from the European tale, best known in its Goethe incarnation, of the malevolent elf who lures children on adventures that involve them being dead. He’s written it for a cast of 12 (one of the largest at the Fringe). In Conjoined, Straight Edge Theatre’s Stephen Allred, who co-writes with partner Seth Gilfillan, has given a new musical a dauntingly intricate small-scale challenge: a cast of two in which the characters struggling for the upper hand (and other body parts) are conjoined brothers. 

The journey that has brought The Erlking to the stage in a Scona Alumni Theatre Co. production, has a strange time-lapse story of its own. “I wrote the original at 17,” says Scott, a student at the time in Linette Smith’s theatre classes at Scona High. “And we put it on at a one-act play festival. A very angst-y show.” He and his smartie friends (“into shocking humour at the time — you know, teenage boys in Alberta!”) “made a short animation to show the class.” 

That was 12 years ago. And The Erlking slumbered away as Scott went east, got his BFA in musical theatre at Berklee College of Music in Boston, moved to New York and “auditioned like mad,” then arrived in Toronto for an ill-fated contract. Until Edmonton and the pandemic. “The melodies of two of the best songs, the catchiest, are the same from the original version,” says Scott. “I completely re-wrote the ending of (one of them) last night in time for  rehearsal.”

“I’ve learned a lot since then,” Scott says, musing on the origins of the musical a lifetime ago. And his story of a town at the edge of a metropolis where the regime is oppressive, the social structure is punishingly hierarchical, and the Elf King’s legend has been blackened by ruling classes and priests, has gained in nuance, he thinks. “And it grew over the course of the pandemic, and working several part-time jobs I hated, and experiencing the adult world (laughter).…”

“Classism, old culture vs. new … that’s in it. But at its core it’s still about power and the balance of power and power structures, the abuse of power.” 

Was Scott the kid who grew up playing in garage rock bands? “I was never that kid!” he says cheerfully. In Boston he threw himself into the craft of acting. “I wanted to be on Broadway; I wanted to be in The Book of Mormon.” He was in the cast of his first musical The Killing Jar, “a cyber-punk electronica type of musical” as he describes, which played the Fringe in 2019. “I wanted to do something wild and interesting…. The story was fine; the plot I didn’t execute properly.” 

Scott thinks big — big cast, big song-list (19 or 20), big sound. It’s film-type music that attracts him now, the lure of digital composition and its alluring possibilities in creating lush, textured orchestral sound. “I had to learn to mix and master,” he says of his pandemic self-education. 

“My hope,” he says of The Erlking (which landed a six-month workshop at Berklee this past year), “is to submit it to larger theatre companies…. I think it has a lot to say, light-hearted but serious, a lot of exciting and touching moments.” 

The provenance of Conjoined couldn’t be more different. For one thing Allred falls into the very exclusive, possibly unique, subset of musical theatre creators with a day job as a dentist. A 2015 dental school graduate who toyed briefly with a career in theatre, he’s been in ELOPE and Foote in the Door Productions. He and director Bethany Hughes, the founders of the indie troupe Straight Edge Theatre, have been doing musicals since 2014. Most recently Imaginary Friend played the 2019 Fringe; Daniel Belland composed the music. With Conjoined, says Allred breezily (as if this were the easiest, most natural progression in the world0, “we thought why not try to write the music ourselves?” 

“Our shows seem to always have five or six, seven or eight people. What if we did something smaller? Something we could maybe tour, and pay the actors more?” 

Allred, who credits the concept of Conjoined to Gilfillan, does concede that a two-hander where the characters are joined does up the ante on both storytelling and stagecraft. “It restricts what you can do; we had to be more creative,” not least because of Straight Edge’s preference for theatre that shows instead of tells: “something active and happening onstage,” not mere narrative reportage of what’s happened offstage.

The Straight Edge muse runs to dark comedy, especially the kind that skews towards camp — witness an archive that began with Bat Boy and includes Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days and Evil Dead: The Musical. Their original musical Cult Cycle, says Allred, had its inspiration in “is walking out of a spin cycle class thinking ‘what if it were a cult that murders people for not fitting in?’” The concept of Conjoined — two fractious joined-together brothers, one of whom resents, possibly homicidally, getting dominated by the other — has that vibe, too.

“When you don’t have other characters to create the action … that was a challenge as well,” says Allred. “How do you build a story arc? How do you have a villain and a hero within the story when there’s only two people there?” 

So, who’s the protagonist? Good question, says Allred. The audience perspective on “who to root for” changes in the musical’s weave of solos and duets. Each brother gets a journey, he says. The struggle to be an individual gets pretty intense when “one brother is speaking in the other’s ear the whole time…. Every decision is a group decision.”

And as for the music Allred and Gilfillan have written (which gets played by a live three-piece band), the former describes it as “a combination of classic musical theatre music and, as the plot develops, more of a rock/grunge influence, and jazzier vibes…. It’s a rock musical.”

Conjoined runs Thursday through Aug. 20 at La Cité francophone (stage 13). The Erlking runs at Strathcona High School (stage 23) Friday through Aug. 20. Tickets and full performance schedule: fringetheatre.ca 

 

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