It hasn’t taken long for 7th House Theater to build a reputation for intriguing and engaging work on stages around the Twin Cities. Last Christmas, they merged the Biblical story of Jonah and the journey of a young man down the Mississippi River in Jonah and the Whale. This year, they offer up The Great Work, which examines the life of a pianist from two perspectives: the modern day, and 60 years ago in Vienna.
Finding time to sit down and chat with the hard-working of trio of co-directors Grant Sorenson (script) and David Darrow (music and lyrics), and choreographer Cat Brindisi proved to be impossible, but we were able to get the answers to a few questions via email for the “chamber musical,” which opens tonight in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater.
City Pages: What was the inspiration for The Great Work?
Grant Sorenson: Our initial inspiration was looking at the life of Romantic-era pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who, in the mid 19th century, was basically the first rock star. His concerts drew in huge crowds, and his fans would go absolutely insane when he played; people had never seen anything like it before, and he was a huge sensation. As we continued looking at this story, however, we found it harder and harder to create a really fulfilling theatrical piece from the original idea, so we shifted our perspective to a new story with some of the same themes.
We’ve kept our central figure, Hans Gartner, a very successful, world famous pianist, but we are focusing on the end of this man’s life. What we are able to do, then, is switch back and forth between present day 2015, as Hans and his daughter Charlotte take a trip back to Vienna, Hans’ birthplace, and the past of 1955, where we see young Hans at the very beginning of his career.
The show has transformed in so many different ways from our first draft of the piece, but the themes have really stayed the same. It’s about the moment your life changes forever based simply on one choice you make. The show is about family, it’s about reconciliation, and it’s about love and art and music.
CP: How does the music in The Great Work differ from Jonah and the Whale? Was their research that had to be done?
David Darrow: This was the first musical I’ve written in the style that we think of as “musical theater.” I went a completely different direction for the music in The Great Work from what Blake Thomas and I had done with Jonah. Jonah was based in folk/Americana music and this show has a much more classical sound. We have a six-piece chamber orchestra, and the orchestrations by Jason Hansen are incredibly lush. We wanted the sound to help explore how beautiful our memories become as we age, and how we cling to specific moments and decisions that shape our lives. Almost all of the show is in some version of ¾ time — partially because Vienna is famous for its waltzes, but also because Sondheim’s A Little Night Music was a huge inspiration early on in this project’s development.
City Pages: What inspiration did you look to for the choreography?
Cat Brindisi: As far as the choreography, my main goal was to try to continue the storytelling through any and all movement in the show. So while the play isn’t dance-heavy, everyone is physically involved and present throughout. Because of the way we collaboratively work, a lot of ideas came from asking how we can help support the main storyline with the ensemble actors. When we were able to work with the brilliant set by Kate Sutton-Johnson, we then had an incredible opportunity to expand that same idea into a larger scale and incorporate it into the space itself. Our set is made up of 30-foot long bungee cords that are hung 16 feet off the ground, which can be manipulated by the actors throughout the show, and they are used to physically define spaces such as a concert hall, an airport, an airplane, as well as a portrayal of more non-literal events, such as airplane turbulence, a human heartbeat, and tension between characters.
City Pages: What sorts of performers did you look for when casting the show? How has the ensemble come together during rehearsals?
Grant Sorenson: This is the first 7th House production without any of the five company members in the cast, which has been a fantastic chance to work with some incredible artists we hadn’t worked with before. Our cast is made up of eight phenomenally talented performers who have been endlessly generous and committed throughout this process. Developing a new musical in the rehearsal room is a challenge, especially for the actors in the production, who are juggling new music and rewrites on the script daily, on top of blocking and choreography, and then adding tech elements on top of that. It’s a lot to throw at a performer. We’ve totally lucked out with this cast – they are so smart and come from all different backgrounds in terms of their theatrical experience.
City Pages: Overall, what kind of experience do you want the audience to have?
Grant Sorenson: We are defining The Great Work as a chamber musical. The run time is only a little over an hour long, but within that hour we tell a very big story spanning 60 years and chronicling an international journey from New York to Austria. At the center of the piece is a fractured father-daughter relationship and over the course of the show we watch them learn to communicate with each other in a way they haven’t been able to before. When we go back into the past, we are told a lush, romantic love story that literally transforms the space of the Dowling Studio in really beautiful ways. We hope people leave the theater feeling like they’ve seen a story that they can relate to in a personal way. The themes of this piece are so universal – family, forgiveness, first love, inspiration, music – that everyone will have some way into the piece that is unique to them. Our goal is always to tell a story, to open up a conversation between actor, musician, and audience.
The Great Work is an intimate chamber piece with big themes and big stakes, and we hope the audience leaves our show feeling like they’ve been surprised, challenged, entertained, and inspired.
IF YOU GO:
The Great Work
Today through Jan. 3
818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.