After a productive round of previews at Spokane Civic Theatre in 2019, the local team behind “Moby Dick – A Musical” – writer Ed Bryan, composer William Berry and stage director Jean Hardie – secured another success when the 2020 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival accepted their developing show in February. Out of 96 submissions, only eight were selected for the festival.
They were thrilled, but the prospect of cutting more than an hour from the show to meet the festival’s two-hour time limit, recasting the show with professionals from Chicago in less than a week and finding a way to simplify and transport the set proved a daunting assortment of tasks.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we got into it, and there we were,” Hardie said. “Everything about our show was just so much bigger than the other shows.”
Their cast was more than twice the size of all the others, and the lack of onsite storage made it necessary to rent space in Chicago for their already pared-down production. But it was all worth it. Promising ticket sales earned the show an additional performance date.
“We actually won best set,” Bryan said, musing on the team’s work up until the festival.
After rereading Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” in late 2013, Bryan suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to adapt it for the stage. From the start, he knew it wouldn’t come easily.
While Bryan has no formal training in theater work, he has nevertheless performed in and directed many local theater productions over the last four decades – most recently D.L. Colburn’s “The Gin Game” in 2016. Years of experience behind him, Bryan was intimately aware of the many difficulties he would have to face in accommodating certain plot elements of the story: oceans, shipwrecks and, of course, whales.
A civil engineer by education, Bryan approaches every show like a construction project. And, like any builder, Bryan knew he would need to bring on a few subcontractors, in his case, a composer and a stage director.
In late 2015, Berry, began composing the musical score to accompany the play. Hardie, a veteran director at many local theaters including Spokane Civic Theatre, Spokane Children’s Theatre and the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene, joined as director shortly after. With his team secured, Bryan returned to his drafts with new energy.
Although several other musicals and plays based on “Moby Dick” have premiered over the last few years, Bryan’s is set apart by his original characterizations of the largely absent female characters in Melville’s book.
“We wanted to emphasize that a ship full of men does not go down in a vacuum,” Hardie said.
“Having the wives and children back at home … you really start to feel the impact that would’ve had when the crew dies,” Berry said.
The show underwent a great deal of revision after a set of workshop previews at Spokane Civic Theatre in 2019, but being forced to cut down the show to its most fundamental elements for the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival gave the team a better understanding of how well the bones of the work could carry its weight. “Moby Dick – A Musical” was getting its sea legs.
Bryan, Berry and Hardie ended the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival feeling triumphant, but not long after returning to Spokane, any and all plans they had made to continue developing and celebrating the show were delayed indefinitely by concerns surrounding COVID-19.
“We’re just waiting, treading water and sending out videos,” said Berry, whose previous work has been performed by orchestras all over the country, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the New York Philharmonic.
Ideally, Berry said, the next-best step to further developing the musical would be to have another crew under different direction produce the show.
While it has become clear that theater companies near and far won’t be programming live shows, let alone new works, until at least 2021, “Moby Dick – A Musical” has received a couple of tentative “bites.” The Woodland Theatre in Kettle Falls has started looking into producing the show in 2022.
With extra time spent at home, the team continues to revise and edit, but its goal hasn’t changed.
“The hope is to bring the full impact of ‘Moby Dick’ to life,” Bryan said in a grant application to the Spokane Arts Grant Awards in 2019. “That this tale, well-told, will cause every member of the audience to look inward and sound their own souls and purpose for at least a few beats before returning to the quotidian.”
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