When Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, he envisioned a future in which the populace would be so distracted by sex, drugs and other forms of entertainment, they could be controlled by those diversions. In that society, everyone is constantly connected to everyone else, no one is ever alone, and children are subversively conditioned to be perfect consumers.
“Sound like any culture we’re familiar with?” asks Bill Russell, lyricist for a new musical adaptation of the novel, which makes its world premiere Wednesday, May 11, at North Carolina Stage Company. The show runs through Sunday, June 5.
The seeds of the collaboration date to 2007 when N.C. Stage worked with a New York producer to help launch a national tour of Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver. Eight years later, one of the associates in the New York office, who now has his own general manager’s office, called Charlie Flynn-McIver, artistic director and co-founder of N.C. Stage, about Brave New World: The Musical.
“They were looking for a place to work on the story and music for its first public performances, and he recalled his experience with us,” Flynn-McIver says. Also, N.C. Stage has gained more attention in New York from world premieres of Stalking The Bogeyman and Someone Else.
After nearly a year of negotiations, an agreement was struck just before Christmas, bringing with it plenty of logistical challenges. Other than Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2002, the second show for the then-fledgling company, N.C. Stage has done few productions involving music, largely due to its limited space. For Brave New World, the performers are miked, sound equipment is everywhere, and musicians are in a separate room with video of the conductor broadcast to the stage and vice versa. Though it all translates to a more expensive and complex show than N.C. Stage’s usual offerings, Flynn-McIver hopes to put on more such productions in the future, even if it takes convincing his loyal audience.
“Sometimes we get pushback from subscribers or ticket buyers who say they don’t want to come to a musical, as if it’s trite or cliche or old-fashioned,” Flynn-McIver says. “The way music is used in a musical to express something that can’t be expressed with words alone is magical. It gets right to the heart of what the character is feeling and going through and is active in a way that is really compelling.”
As in Huxley’s novel, Brave New World centers on World Controller Thomas Mond (played by Justin Sargent) and his struggle to maintain order when two of his genetically superior citizens, Lenina (Marisa O’Donnell) and Bernard (Jason Edward Cook), leave their chemically engineered utopia — the government controls the population with the pleasure drug Soma — to explore a savage reservation. They return with mysterious outsiders John (Robby Haltiwanger) and his mother, Linda (Robin Skye). Ben Andron, author of the show’s book, acknowledges that the structure of the novel doesn’t easily lend itself to the stage. In Huxley’s writing, automobile pioneer Henry Ford is essentially God — citizens say “Ford” instead of “Lord” because their society is modeled after his assembly line efficiency. So, to honor the source material while also creating a compelling piece of theater, Andron came up with a celebration of Ford and the Model T as the show’s framing device.
It’s accompanied by music that co-composer John McDaniel describes as “pop-rock in flavor, drawing on contemporary and often futuristic feels and vibes.” A crew of local designers including Andrew Manion (set), C.J. Barnwell (lights), George Martinat (costumes), Matt Nielson (sound), Jessica Tandy Kammerud (props) and Aaron Price (assistant to music department) are working with director Thomas Caruso and choreographer Ryan Kasprzak on the collaborative vision.
By far the largest show N.C. Stage has ever done, Flynn-McIver says Brave New World will stretch the performers, designers, crew and staff in ways they’ve yet to experience. It will leave them with an enhanced physical infrastructure and skills that will make subsequent shows better — and bigger, if they so choose. The expanded budget that comes with putting on a larger project also means more money will be spent in the local community. And if the changes made to Stalking the Bogeyman before its Off-Broadway and West End runs, and to Someone Else prior to its upcoming Off-Broadway run this spring are any indication, future productions of Brave New World will be greatly shaped by its rehearsals and performances at N.C. Stage. That, in turn, should attract even more world premieres to Asheville.
WHAT: Brave New World, The Musical
WHERE: North Carolina Stage Company, ncstage.org
WHEN: Wednesday, May 11, to Sunday, June 5. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. $16-40