Not Your Average High-School Musical

A rock star, a comedic actor/writer, and a playwright walk into a room. The first thing to come up in conversation: an off-color joke about safe words. Naturally. But soon we got down to business, and Chan Poling (rock star), Bill Corbett (comedic actor/writer), and Jeffrey Hatcher (playwright) told me all about their new venture, the musical A Night in Olympus, the final piece of this year’s Fresh Ink series at Illusion Theater.

How did it happen that the three of you came together to collaborate?

Jeff: The idea really bubbled out of Chan’s brain: he’s the composer, lyricist, and conceiver of the original story. Chan gave me a buzz at the recommendation of a friend to work on the book, and then I gave Bill a buzz because I didn’t want to do it by myself.

Bill: He gets lonely.

Chan: Jeff’s a very famous playwright, nationally. I’m local. So I was very surprised when he said he wanted to do it.

Jeff: Bill and I had known each other for a thousand years, and he’s worked with Mystery Science Theater forever, so I thought it would be fun for us to work on the book. We both brought fairly big ideas to the idea that Chan already had, but it’s a fun musical which we think has a good message; it is very hummable, very singable, very boppy—a cast of eight actors playing about 25 characters.

Bill: It gets somewhat complex and almost requires a spreadsheet of who can talk to whom at what time.

Where did the idea for Olympus come from?

Chan: The genesis of the idea stemmed from the idea that we are never satisfied with who we are. It started as a simple little germ: I’d bought a brand new car years ago, and as I was driving down the street I drove by a Range Rover, and thought, “Oooh, that looks awesome.” And I caught myself: I’d just bought this car, and I’m already yearning after another one. You know, “the grass is always greener.” So I thought that might be a nice theme. I started playing with this idea of a woman who wants to be younger and prettier and gets her wish and then learns that maybe things are better as she was. We talked about it and decided maybe if that woman was young to start with, it might be more energized. Then we went off on this whole tangent: there’s a Jekyll and Hyde story in there, I’d been watching a lot of old musicals—Damn Yankees, that sort of thing—and wanted to do something fun that would harken back to that style.

Jeff: We ratcheted it all the way down to high school, a place where lots of different dynamics of social power, money, looks, etc. come into play.

Bill: And really, what better place for three middle-aged men to focus all their attention on than high school!

Jeff: But when Chan says there’s an element of Jekyll and Hyde in the original concept, you know like take a potion, Bill said, “Why can’t it be a wish? Why can’t gods be involved?” And that’s the reason the current title is A Night in Olympus: there’s this notion that there are these gods functioning here on the planet because they’ve been banished here.

Bill: Yeah, they’ve been knocked down and are in exile here on this very flat, Midwestern town, and this just happens to be where our play is set.

Jeff: It was always set somewhere in the Midwest, but now it’s specifically set in Olympus, Indiana. Terribly flat, terribly boring…

Bill: Which was used by the other gods to really rub it in: you’re going to another place called Olympus, but you’ll be reduced to teaching high-school students there.

Chan: The idea for the story was that instead of the magic transformation coming from a pill or bean, there’d be an agent to grant the wish. Then we came up with this god idea.

Bill: Kinda got out of hand didn’t it?

How long did his whole process take? Sounds like a lot of steps.

Chan: It was a year.

Jeff: It was a year probably to get the script done, but then we all went into a kind of holding pattern for at least a year before we even heard it read aloud. We finally put together a reading of it this past March. Bonnie (Morris, producing director at Illusion) and Michael (Robins, executive producing director at Illusion) kindly let us use the space here (at Illusion), and after they heard it, Michael said, “Well why don’t you put this in the Fresh Ink series? Put some time and money and people behind it and see what happens.”

What’s the long-term goal for the show?

Bill: We set out to make a musical that’s more mobile and light on its feet.

Jeff: Different kinds of shows require different kinds of spectacle. Sometimes spectacle means dropping a chandelier or having 57 beautiful sets, but sometimes spectacle is, “Wow, that actor played six different roles and I just now realized it was him every time.” This story is all about transformation, so the question is: if you’re a middle-aged or young woman who wants to turn into someone prettier, do you then turn into a different actor? Or do you just turn into yourself? And what does that transformation look like? Do you suddenly have on all this makeup? Or do you simply say, “Now I’m beautiful.”

Bill: The solution in Damn Yankees was, here’s the new cast member!

Jeff: And Damn Yankees is a great musical, but it’s kind of weird when the guy you’re left with at the end is the guy you met an hour-and-a-half ago who’s been off reading the newspaper the whole time.

Chan: Exactly. So we’re going to use the same gal and we’re going to see what she can do.

Is she going to be one of the actors who transforms?

Jeff: No, the leads remain the same throughout: Maggie will always be Maggie (an awkward, overlooked, zombie-obsessed girl, played by Jessica Fredrickson), and Harry is always Harry (Maggie’s friend, played by Tyler Michaels). Everyone else transforms tons and tons. It would be too confusing if Maggie all of a sudden transformed from being beautiful Maggie to Mrs. Orangutan.

Bill: Now there’s a character we really should consider.

Jeff: I think I was going for an Irish name and suddenly got that…

Bill: You need a constant in a show like this to keep things grounded.

Jeff: This is going to sound pompous, but one of the coolest things about this show is that Chan’s lexicon is different from everyone else’s lexicon.

Bill (to Chan): Were you aware of that?

Chan: No, not really.

Jeff: Well, you didn’t like the Range Rover, so you went for the Lexicon.

Bill: Oh, no.

Jeff: I just mean that Chan comes from a different world than the world of musical theater that we play in most of the time. This is your first foray, right?

Chan: Well, you know, I did some stuff for the Jeune Lune and Heaven at the Guthrie. I’ve had a few big hits, Jeff.

Jeff: Well, I’m sorry.

Chan: No, I definitely come from a different background.

That’s the perfect segue, thanks guys! Tell me, what are all your backgrounds?

Chan: I started out doing classical-music concerts at the Walker Art Center and those kinds of venues. Then, in 1980, I started a punk-rock band called The Suburbs. (He says as Bill, Jeffrey, and I look at each other with a “Duh” look on our faces.) When I turned 30, the Jeune Lune folks, Dominique (Serrand) and those guys, asked if I wanted to score some shows, because I’d done those more classical shows at the Walker and such. So I scored 1789 and Cyrano for them…

Bill: I didn’t know that. That was my first Jeune Lune show. I loved it.

Chan: Which one?

Bill: Cyrano.

Jeff: And you did The Nightingale.

Chan: And I did The Nightingale, which was a musical. Then I did Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream, and that was huge: it went on to La Jolla Playhouse and New York. It was the first score experience I did that went to the wider world. It got on the cover of Newsweek, Time, and American Theater magazine. And I thought Wow, I want to do shows like this.

Bill: Can I give a non-modest description of Chan? He’s a rock star. And he has been for a real long time.

Jeff: You’re always going off to New York to play, like, you know, Carnegie Hall.

Chan: Always.

Bill: Pop-rock touring band guy with music things.

Chan: Yes, I have toured all around. The coolest place we played was Shanghai. I mean, if we’re going to drop names.

Bill: And your new group is…

Chan: The New Standards. And that’s it. That’s all I know. But I’m really excited for this show.

Jeff, you’re up.

Jeff: I’ve lived in Minneapolis 20-some years. Like Bill, I moved out here on a fellowship from the Playwright Center—it’s like a catch-and-release program.

Bill: They just never let us go.

Jeff: I’ve written for off-Broadway, I had a show on Broadway briefly, I do a lot of adaptations, some television and film, and have done a surprising amount of bookwork—which simply means the structure and dialogue of a show. So I put together jokes, stories, and relationships that function with—and hopefully never just around—the songs. One of the interesting things about a musical is often as you’re working, you’ll think, “This scene could be a scene, or it could be a song.” Sometimes you can write an entire scene, and know it’s never going to play out because the composer has a song for it instead.

Bill: Basically, a musical is infinitely more complex than a straight play.

And last but not least: Bill’s turn.

Bill: I came here in 1990 for a Jerome Fellowship—I was just out of Yale drama school at the time. It was wholly evident that this was a great theater town. I got another Jerome Fellowship—I was sort of a parasite of the Playwright Center—and then I started acting at the Guthrie. Five or so years after I got here, I got a job with Mystery Science Theater, which I really didn’t know that well before I got involved, and it’s been a big part of my career: I wrote for the show, became part of the cast, and now am involved in a spin-off of the show called RiffTrax. I’ve done screenwriting: wrote a movie that Eddie Murphy starred in—not a great movie, but it got made. I’ve been sort of involved in the theater world all along, but not as much as Jeff because I have this parallel life in the world of comedy. I’m also working on the memorial for the fifth anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse. Which is a complete 180 from my comedy career.

So, there you have it: a musical influenced by Jekyll and Hyde and Damn Yankees, starring eight actors playing 25-plus roles, written by three men ranging from punk-rock-slash-classical-music guru to cult-comedy celebrity to Broadway-pro playwright. Really, what’s not to love?

A Night in Olympus
July 26-29
8 p.m. (7 p.m. Sunday, July 29)
Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.