Why is the new, locally written musical On the Eve, about "a time-traveling hot air balloon, Marie Antoinette, and a would-be hero with a really cool gun" difficult to explain?
It might because its creators, book writer Michael Federico and composers/lyricists Seth and Shawn Magill have, while holding onto the basic concept, been changing the work since it had a private reading in 2011, which was followed by a public reading. Those changes include new ideas brought in by director Jeffrey Schmidt, who became involved for the musical's first full production, beginning this weekend at the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park. The show is produced under the banner of Spacegrove Productions, in conjunction with Nouveau 47 Theatre, with the help of $5,000 raised via Kickstarter.
"There are certain things that Jeff came up with that I never would have thought of, but I like it so much," says Federico, an actor, Kitchen Dog Theater company member and the new managing director of Nouveau 47. "I think it has the spirit of what I always pictured; there are things that Jeff and the cast and Shawn and [choreographer] Sara [Romersberger] have found that have made it more specific."
Federico and the Magills, a married couple who lead the local band Home by Hovercraft, have been brewing the idea for a long time. Federico and Seth met as undergrad theater students at Southern Methodist University in the 1990s.
"For a while we were living in different cities but would see each other at Christmas, at parties," Federico says. "They kept talking about this idea of a show about the hot air balloon and Marie Antoinette. Finally we ended up in Dallas at the same time."
The story is inspired by the invention of the hot air balloon, during the time of Marie Antoinette, in the late 18th century, in which bothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier invented the balloon and supposedly sent a duck, rooster and sheep up in the contraption before it was tested with humans riding along. It also stemmed in part from a class lecture at University of Texas at Dallas, where Federico recently comletely his Master's, on the Chicago World Fair in 1893, which supposedly showcased the guillotine in which Antoinette's head was offed.
In On the Eve, Marie Antoinette is a character, and the balloon time-travels into the 19th and 20th centuries, and beyond, with other historical characters making cameos.
Because Shawn and Seth have theater backgrounds (he currently teaches acting for Shakespeare Dallas and Dallas Children's Theater, and was in DCT's recent production of Pinkalicious; she is a business consultant and Nouveau 47's new outreach director), Home by Hovercraft's songs tend to be story-driven, and were naturals to make their way into a musical.
Home by Hovercraft also includes Seth's sister Abbey, whose role in the band is Irish step dancing as percussion; local actor Max Hartman on the drum kit; and Johnny Sequenzia on mandolin, banjolin and harmonica. Seth is lead vocalist and plays tuba, and Shawn, a classically trained pianist, is on keyboards and xylophone. The band has an eclectic sound, and often draws comparisons to bands that have put a cabaret twist—as in traditional German-style cabaret—on indie rock, such as the Dresden Dolls and Beirut. Although if you download HxH's 2009 EP Seams via iTunes, you'll hear more straightforward and catchy piano-based rock. (The songs from On the Eve will be featured on a forthcoming album.)
[Here's the song "San Benito" from the Seams EP]
All of the band members, and most of their instruments, come into play in On the Eve, with Seth also playing the role of the would-be hero. The cast also includes local actors Jenny Ledel, Gregory Lush, Maryam Baig Lush, Brian Witkowicz and Aspen Taylor, with dancers Leslie McDonough and Shannon McCauley joining Abbey Magill in the percussive step dancing.
"I think [this musical] stretched us out of a comfort zone," Shawn says. "But nobody ever said 'let's write about that.' We worked on the story and songs would come. [The music] is affected by the mood or feel of a scene."
"We try and live in the story of the song," Seth adds. "So we'll develop a story for the song. Some of the songs already had a similar story, or at least similar subtext."
As for the book, there's a play-within-a-play aspect, and Federico readily admits the influence of Brecht and Pirandello, as well as novelist Thomas Pynchon.
"It becomes about this group of people trying to get it right," Federico says. "I think as actors and artists, we're always thinking about that."
No doubt, as On the Eve continues its evolution forward—they plan to pursue options for future productions elsewhere—"getting it right" is something all involved will continue thinking about.
As for an explanation of what it is, perhaps a description that's been going around on Facebook suits it best: "Equal parts epic Brechtian storytelling, rock concert and unicorn tears."