This week, Theater RED collaborates with Slinger’s Kettle Moraine Players to open the world premiere of Girard’s Nude--a musical based on a novel by prolific Wisconsin-based writer Nancy Sweetland. Set in 1953, the story concerns a well-known French artist who meets an overweight, middle-aged American woman at a cocktail party and offers to paint her nude. The show is adapted by Playwright Kristin Bayer. Music is composed by Deanna Gibeau. Theater RED’s Christopher Elst directs the show. The three artists took some time out to answer a few questions for The Small Stage.
How did the idea of turning Girard’s Nude into a musical theatre show come about?
Kristin Bayer (playwright): Deanna and I started brainstorming ideas as we were wrapping up production on our first show, a children’s musical. We'd had so much fun working together. We were in the process of batting around a lot of ideas, and I mean a lot, trying to find something that interested us both, when I read the novel Girard’s Nude. I loved it and I thought Deanna would too. And she did. It’s about a few particular characters in a small town in the 1950s, but it’s really about love and art and beauty, and about body image and middle age and marriage. There's so much there, and it’s just so funny.
The novel’s Wisconsin-based author Nancy Sweetland seems like a really interesting and prolific writer. How closely has she been involved in the adaptation?
Kristin Bayer (playwright): When I asked Nancy if she’d let us turn her book into a musical, she was delighted. I don’t think she’d ever imagined getting a request like that. Turning a book into a play requires a lot of changes. There’s not much dialogue in books. Instead there’s a lot of description, and characters’ thoughts and feelings. In a play, everything is spoken, and there always has to be someone else in the room to talk to. It means adding characters, combining characters, moving characters to a place they might reasonably have a conversation. Given all that, we were mindful of staying true to Nancy’s story and characters, and she’s trusted us with it. During our editing process, we hosted a table read, and she joined us, but as an observer. She’s given us a free hand. And she’s bringing a whole busload of friends and families to see the show at KMP. She’s very excited about it.
It’s not often that a small indie group from Milwaukee reaches as far out as Slinger to collaborate on a show. How did the co-production between Theater Red and the Kettle Moraine players develop?
Christopher Elst (director): A few years ago, Theater RED partnered with Musical Masquers of West Bend to create their production of Dracula. Many of the folks in that production, or associated with Masquers were also involved in the several years of writing and workshopping that brought Girard's Nude to life. Deanna Gibeau, in particular, who wrote the music for Nude, and who is music director for this production, and her husband, Peter, who plays Ernest, remembered working with me on that production and asked if I would be interested in directing for Kettle Moraine Players. When I saw how closely the show aligned with the tenets of Theater RED (Substantial roles for women, new works by promising artists, growth in craft), I felt it was the perfect fit.
Girard’s Nude appears to be a clever idea for a story that touches on a whole bunch of different themes. How does the story in the novel respond to being adapted for musical theatre?
Deanna Gibeau (composer): Very well, we think! The characters are, at times, developed through songs sung either by them or about them throughout the musical. And the livelier songs are written in the happy style of The Crew Cuts and other vintage jazz groups, along with a couple of more lush, love-song ballads at certain moments of questioning, tension and reconciliation.
Musical styles of the early 20th century featured on the musical include doo-wop, barbershop quartet and more. Does the midcentury mix of musical genres spring directly from the context of the story or is it more of a whimsical dance through different styles in the course of the story?
Deanna Gibeau (composer): The context of the story does inspire the musical numbers, and we had a lot of fun with this. Our parents were teens and young adults in the 50s and we were both very familiar with and grew up hearing music of these genres. My hope is that the songs are joyful and somewhat simple, staying with the audience for a while after the show. It makes me smile to imagine them whistling a song or two from Girard's Nude in the car on their way home.
The show is being promoted as a light I Love Lucy-esque mid-20th century sitcom, but a premise like Girard’s Nude has the potential to satirize the male-dominated world (among other things), and address topics of body positivity and a whole host of other issues. Is the musical pointed at anything beyond light comedy or is it aspiring to be more of a light farce?
Christopher Elst (director): It certainly plays out like classic sitcoms — there's even some similarities to Abbott and Costello at points — but the themes are certainly weightier. It's a challenge to weight those things properly, but comedy musicals give us a chance to listen in a different way than the more direct nature of most drama. And really, ain't life funny? Kristin and Deanna have done a superb job of balancing comedy and epiphany in every scene, and of using the clichés in that genre to point out the underlying humanity in them. We get to see fully-realized characters on a path of growth, with all the pain and laughter that such a path brings.
The world-premiere of Girard’s Nude runs Sep. 6th - Sep. 22nd at the Kettle Moraine Playhouse at 2014 Kettle Maraine Dr. S in Slinger, WI. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.