BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!

BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!Who hasn't thought about what it would be like to live forever? Not having to worry about getting sick, losing loved ones, or the ailments that come with old age would be great, but what if that choice came with the realization that those who you've already lost will be lost to you, forever. Would you still choose to do it? Those are the questions that one family is faced during a fateful road trip in the new musical DEATHLESS which opens at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre in Chester on June 2. I had the chance to sit down with the writer, lyricist, and composer of DEATHLESS, Zack Zadek and talk about his inspiration for the show, the process of bringing a new musical to life, and the emotional themes on display in this new production.

BWW: Tell us a little about DEATHLESS. What's the show about?

Zack Zadek: DEATHLESS is a new musical that takes place in a world where the cure for natural death has been invented. So if you could take a small pill and could live forever, would you? That is the question we are asking. The story follows a family where the mom in the family has just passed away just as this cure comes out. The family takes their annual road trip from Kansas City to Niagra Falls and along the way has to decide if they want to live forever without her.

It seems like exploring a topic like this, especially in a musical, is something that wouldn't have happened in the past. What do you think that says about our culture/society today? Are we more open to these things? More introspective? Are we more willing to take risks with a medium like musical theater?

That's a great point. First, as society moves forward, it's important for us to talk about life's big questions - the things we don't talk about openly enough. We all live and we all die. There is nothing more universal than life and death. One of my biggest hopes for this show is that it will prompt us to have more conversations about life's big questions. To the second point about saying this in a musical specifically - I think this says something about the state of musical theater today. This is a five person cast, a small chamber piece, which typically would sound more like a new play rather than a musical. But people are hungry to see real and interesting narratives told through musical theater.

People have been looking for the fountain of youth for a very long time, but what I find very interesting about DEATHLESS is that it asks, for the first time that I am aware of - what happens to those on the brink?

To me that is where the most interesting drama is. We are following a family who happens to be right on the edge and seeing how they navigate the transition from the people who missed this and the people who will always know it, that is where the exciting story is.

And in today's world of exponential advances in technology and medicine, there are definitely going to be things in the near future that will raise these questions for all of us.

Yes, it's crazy! In the years since I started writing this piece there have been at least five major technology companies that have announced plans to try and do this. Google has an entire division dedicated to longevity and a cure for death.

Do you remember when you realized - "I think I will write a musical about this topic?"BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!

I tend to have mini existential crises during life's big transitions - during the benchmarks that you measure in your life. For example, getting your driver's license for the first time- I will never do that again. So, I was in my final semester at NYU and graduating became that for me, kind of the benchmark at the end of my childhood. I had to write a piece for my honors project and thought, as a personal escape, what if I didn't have to worry about this fear anymore. What if I could take a pill and live forever?

You have two very different yet complimentary styles of music in the play - the indie rock that Hayley listens to and the style of the musical numbers themselves. Can you talk a little about that?

It is one of the most exciting parts of this show. There are almost two scores. There is the score that I have written which is kind of indie folk, similar to artists like Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver. It captures this feeling of driving through the northern part of America. But our main character, Hayley, her personal escape are much harder indie rock records like The Strokes or Arcade Fire, and we use music by those artists in the show.

I am sure you get asked this all the time, but what comes first for you? Music? Lyrics?

The real answer is the story. It is really important that I understand fully the story that I am trying to tell and understand the beat that has to be written. From there I will explore the narrative beat - what's the title? What has to be accomplished? And then it all comes out at the same time. The music that feels right. But if you don't understand the narrative it is usually garbage.

How much has the show changed over time? How fluid is it today?

I think a couple of the biggest shifts were first, understanding this isn't a show about the pill. This is a question we are asking the audience, but I am not interested in telling that story. This is really about a family who is experiencing and recovering from loss. So understanding that was huge. Also finding the music that is evocative of the mysticism of life and death. Also the tone of the dialogue - it took me a minute to realize that it wanted to feel hyper-naturalistic, kind of like an Annie Baker play.

Who were your own musical inspirations growing up?

When I was growing up I listened exclusively to Broadway cast recordings until I got to college. When I got to college I sort of rebelled from it and decided I wanted to listen to indie records and alternative records. In terms of favorite artists, I am a huge Coldplay fan and a huge Sufjan Stevens fan. I love Arcade Fire, Ben Folds, Bon Iver. As I got older I decided to find a way to fuse these two sounds and tell narrative stories using sounds from other music.

So, as you said, DEATHLESS is a story about a road trip - so what is the most memorable road trip you have ever taken?

There is something funny that happens with families when you are stuck in a closed space for a long time. For my family we would go through the range of emotions on every trip. Sometimes we would be euphoric, laughing and playing crazy games. There was always inevitably a period when no one is speaking. In that sense, I feel like my family had its most prominent moments emotionally on road trips. Also there is something about the geography passing you by in contrast with the small enclosed space in the car. You are safe, but on the open road.

I have always thought of road trips with your family as the perfect melding of the familiar and unfamiliar.

Absolutely, and when you think about it, that is a pretty apt metaphor for our lives.

As a young composer and writer yourself, I wonder if you have any inspiring words for other young people out there who think they want to take a shot at writing/composing?

The biggest thing is that it is all about story. At the end of the day, theater is storytelling. I think the most helpful thing that I have learned is that story wins in every situation. The music has to serve the story. The text has to serve the story. In terms of the practice of breaking into a career, you have to ignore the noise and have enough faith that the story you have to tell is right and that the world needs to hear it.

BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!I know it is a little like asking who your favorite child is, but is there a song/scene/moment in DEATHLESS that you feel is your favorite?

The first song I wrote for the show is called "Up and Away" which is our eleven o'clock number. That was the song where I realized how the piece could sing.

What's the collaborative process been like with Tina Landau?

This is my first production and to work on it with Tina is amazing. Every day I am waiting for a call or an email to tell me someone made a terrible mistake. She is every bit of what her reputation makes her out to be. She is completely inventive. We share the same vision for the show and every choice she makes is inspired.

Anything else you would like our readers to know about the show?

Two things - At the end of the day these sound like really heavy subjects - Life! Death! Magic Pills! But it is a story about a family and a story about a road trip. There is a lot of lightness to that. It captures a range of emotion. It is not just a heavy piece. Even though death is in the title, it is much more than that. Second, our cast is truly extraordinary. Not to single anyone out specifically, but having Jenn Damiano as our leading lady, it is important to note what she brings to the process.

DEATHLESS runs at the Goodspeed's Terris Theatre at 33 North Main Street, Chester, Connecticut June 2 - July 2. Performances are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Single tickets start at $49. Prices are subject to change based on availability. Goodspeed Box Office (860.873.8668BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!BWW Interview: Zack Zadek of DEATHLESS at The Terris Theatre with Jennifer Damiano, Jessica Phillips, and More!) or online at goodspeed.org

Top Photo: Zack Zadek

Middle photo: Jessica Phillips, Kelli Barrett, Jennifer Damiano, Johnny Shea and Sean Allan Krill in Goodspeed's Deathless. (c) Adrien Broom

Bottom photo: Johnny Shea, Jennifer Damiano, Sean Allan Krill, Jessica Phillips, and Kelli Barrett in Goodspeed's Deathless. (c) Adrien Broom

What Do You Think? Tell Us In The Comments!


Related Articles

From This Author Joseph Harrison

Before you go...