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BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with A NIGHT IN OLYMPUS' Chan Poling

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How often do you get to see a brand new show that's being performed for the first time after an exhaustive creation process right here in Minneapolis? Except for old theatre goers like yours truly, who was fortunate enough to see the pre-Broadway run of THE LION KING at the Orpheum, lo those many years ago, not too often (OK, maybe unless you're at Fringe, but that's totally different!).

The Illusion Theater is presenting the world premiere of a new musical that has a pedigree -- with music and lyrics by Chan Poling the rock music star of the famous Minneapolis band, The Suburbs, and now The New Standards, and book by Jeffrey Hatcher and Bill Corbett. Hatcher, of course, is a playwright who needs little introduction, having his work produced on Broadway, off Broadway and at hundreds of theaters around the country and abroad, as well as feature films and television shows. Corbett is perhaps best known for his screenwriting and performing in Mystery Science Theater 3000 and his work on Rifftrax.com. His screenplay STARSHIP DOVE was made into a movie MEET DAVE starring Eddie Murphy, among other career highlights. These three gentlemen live and work right here in Minneapolis. Lucky us!

Topping that off, the cast is a virtual all-star array of Twin Cities theater performers who each regularly lead shows all over town -- Tyler Michaels, McKinnley Aitchison, Dieter Bierbrauer, Aimee K. Bryant, Norah Long, Adam Qualls, Mark Rosenwinkel and Randy Schmeling. This team brings a whole lot of talent to one small stage -- and not only are they up close in the intimate Illusion space but you'll get to see these actors stretch and work their acting chops by switching characters throughout the show as they move from student to teacher to otherworldly beings.

Casts like this are amazing and interviewing any one of them would be great. But it's not often that we get to hear directly from the show's creator, and especially the composer, which is an area we likely take for granted too often. Lucky us, again, because Poling agreed to share more insight into this show and himself in 6 Questions & a Plug! Read up, and then get your seats reserved as the show runs only through June 4, 2016, and you'll want to be sure to say you saw this one from the beginning.

This is a brand new show; how did it come about, and how did you get involved in writing the music and lyrics?

Yes, it IS a brand new show - and we all know those are rare and wonderful (but necessary) things. New shows (not based on existing source material) are hard to make, first of all, and even harder to get produced. But the creative team and the Illusion Theater really believed in this show and we're so proud we've seen it through it's long birth pangs to its first production!

It came about from an original idea of mine that I brought to Jeffrey Hatcher. He brought in Bill Corbett to help with the book. After much discussion (which brought forth the surprising 'Olympian' twist that is at the work's center) it evolved enough to get a "Fresh Ink" workshop at the Illusion, thanks to Michael and Bonnie there. That experience - which involved Tyler Michaels and much of the same cast, btw - lead us to want to work to finish it and try to get it on it's feet. Four years later (Has it been that long?) here we are!

You're known most prominently for your rock music as the founding member of The Suburbs and the New Standards. But, perhaps less well known, you previously had written music and scored other productions, such as some with Theatre de la Jeune Lune (long-time Minneapolis theatre goers will remember the late, great company) and a show you wrote the music, lyrics and book for, VENUS, as well as last year's hit GLENSHEEN at the History Theatre. Have you always had an interest in musical theatre, and how did you segue from a rock music career to this?

I write songs. I'm a composer. I studied composition at Cal Arts out of high school. I love pop music and that part of my life -- being in The Suburbs -- is very important to me, but I don't think I ever "segued"... I have always, from the beginning, written music for dance, theater, films, written poetry and all sorts of lyrics, and loved and pursued the life of a broader artist. As for musicals? My dad brought me to New York and Broadway shows (his business brought him there often) starting when I was 11 years old. I LOVE musicals and have always dreamed of stepping onto that stage at the Tonys! I also like to cook. :)

Can you talk a little more about the process you used to create this show and how you worked with Jeffrey Hatcher and Bill Corbett? Did the show start with your music or their book -- or was it a total collaboration all the way through?

See above! I'll add that now I've worked with Jeff on two shows and we're already talking through a few new ideas. It's a real pleasure and a real collaboration; I'll suggest scene ideas, he'll suggest lyric ideas, and we go back and forth constantly. But Jeff (and Bill, on this show) is the genius playwright. I, the humble songsmith.

You have Twin Cities all-star cast in this production, but your actors, with a couple of exceptions, are playing high school students for much of the show and some of them could have children or grandchildren in high school. Why did you/the director/the show decide to cast older actors to play a show about a high school girl rather than having a larger cast that included younger actors (aside from the lead)?

Well, first off, I want to say that I think the eight person, diverse in age cast was artistically the right decision. It's inventive and actors love the challenge. But it also came about from fiscal necessity, which was a conscious decision from the standpoint of it's (including future) chances to get produced, but also because we needed actors who could play adults (the teachers, etc.) and kids. Really, only a couple of the kid's roles NEEDED to be played by kids: our leads, Maggie (McKinnley Aitchison) and Harry (Tyler Michaels). The stock characters (the bully, the science nerd girl etc.) could be played by anybody. That being said, if someone wanted to produce a bigger version with all the roles cast individually, with a big dance ensemble etc., we wouldn't argue.

(However,) the show was designed to bring more young people into the theater. I know it was written by middle-age men, but we were all teenagers once! The regular theater-going crowd will find much to amuse them, but the younger audience is really loving the Maggie/Harry story.

The music is very catchy and fun. Do you have any plans to release or use any of the music beyond this production of the show?

Thank you! I'd like to get this cast and band into the studio before too long and record it... for some use, yes. And, some of my band mates in The Suburbs asked if we could do "I'm The One"! But these songs are for this show, and I think they both will live on together.

The program notes talk about your "Supershark" (people may have to see the show to understand the reference here!) being a production of this show on Broadway. Is writing a Broadway show a dream you've always had? What is your favorite Broadway show thus far?

As I said, I'd love to see OLYMPUS go on to a larger and longer life, wherever that may be. And I am always available to write (attention producers!). My favorite show thus far? That's impossibly tough as you know. I haven't seen "Hamilton" yet. Classics? "Damn Yankees" (similar in theme to this show), "Fiddler on the Roof", anything by Sondheim, "Wizard of Oz" and "Mary Poppins" (Hollywood, not NY, but two of my fave musicals), I really liked "Spring Awakening" and "Avenue Q"... I don't know, I've see so many fun and great shows!

What is next for you on stage or off? How about for A NIGHT IN OLYMPUS?

The History Theater in Saint Paul is bringing GLENSHEEN back in July. Already selling very well, don't delay! :) And Jeff and I are pitching a couple new ideas. I'm proud that Jeff and the Paradigm Agency in NYC have taken me a bit under their wing. We will see what happens to A NIGHT IN OLYMPUS, the reaction has been stellar.

More information:

A NIGHT IN OLYMPUS

Music and Lyrics by Chan Poling

Book by Jeffrey Hatcher and Bill Corbett

Directed by Michael Robins

May 7-June 4, 2016 (Previews May 5-6)

Illusion Theater

Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, 8th Floor

528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Box office: 612-339-4944 or www.illusiontheater.org

Tickets: $25-$42 (discounts available)

Photo: Jeffrey Hatcher, Bill Corbett and Chan Poling at the Illusion Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by Bonnie Morris.


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