What was the most fun part of adapting a book into a stage musical?
I was so entranced by Judy Schachner's illustrations. They are beautiful and dramatic. I thought, "If I can create a piece of theater that will feel like these drawings ... that would be stirring." The challenge was a lot of fun. I also really enjoyed expanding Judy's story to work for the stage. The book is only 32 pages or so. I had to find ways of deepening the characters and adding to the already wonderful narrative. It was a thrill to hear from Judy that she loved the adaptation. That's what Sam and I were shooting for.
You are a Pennsylvania native -- why do you think audiences in Pittsburgh will love "Yo, Vikings!"?
I'm from just outside of Philadelphia, but I went to school at Point Park and then lived in Oakland for 6 years after I graduated. Although I'm not a native Pittsburgher, I have adopted the city as my second home. "Yo, Vikings!" takes place in the neighborhood I grew up in -- Swarthmore, PA. It's very much like suburban neighborhoods in the burgh. I think that Pittsburghers will see a lot of themselves in these characters and associate with the small town PA feel that envelops the show.
You write, you act, you teach, you do it all. What motivated you to get involved with theater?
I was very lucky to have a youth theater program in my hometown called Upper Darby Summer Stage. It was something I looked forward to every summer, and it instilled in me a desire to continue telling stories. Summer Stage eventually commissioned me to write "Yo, Vikings!" for their 2010 season, so we've come full circle.
What inspired you to write the music for "Yo, Vikings!"?
I had a bunch of inspirations and tried to gather different ideas via differing means... First, Marcus and I always knew that we wanted the show to feel like our favorite movies when we were growing up -- classic Disney, big 90s hits, Pixar. The show needed to be as colorful, joyous, and evocative as Judy's story and Marcus' lyrics.
After that initial impulse, things got real, because the show also needed to have some legit, authentic-sounding Viking music. Problem is, though we know the Vikings were a musical people, none of their songs were transcribed, and nothing survives to the present day. Marcus and I referred to this conundrum as the "Pocahontas Problem" -- how could we write songs that make people feel like they're a part of this lost, ancient legacy, even if we kind of have to invent it from the ground ourselves?
So, we went to the library. No joke. We consulted history. The Vikings sailed to the British Isles (where we find Celtic music), throughout Scandinavia (leaving a legacy through classical composers like Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius), and to Eastern Europe (which has a rich history of folk music). We thought that, if we could find commonalities between the different musical oeuvres, or combine them, we might be able to get the elusive sound we wanted.
(Read more about Sam's research of Viking music below!)
Who is your favorite character in "Yo, Vikings!"?
Honestly? -- I love all of them. I love Nikki because she's mean. I love Sigurd because he's wise. I love Emma because she's... Emma. And I love them all because they all bring different, equally important facets to Yo, Vikings! If I ever didn't love a character, it would be because they were not sufficiently doing their job in the overall story. If a character is not integral to the story, they get cut. Ain't nobody got time for no folderol.
Beyond being an award-winning song writer, you've also played the piano on Broadway. What's the most exciting thing about live theater?
Dessert afterwards. I firmly believe that, after a show, everyone's earned dessert. And, whilst enjoying said dessert, you can talk about the show. What did you learn? What did you like? What didn't you understand? What did you find untrue, distasteful, or plain-old bad? What would you have done differently? What songs came out of the theatre with you, what moments resonated with you? Being able to better communicate with your friends and your loved ones about art and music and life and shared experience -- well, that's the whole point, isn't it?
For the Music Buffs -- Sam's Research of Viking Music!
We discovered some important themes of Viking music. First, a lot of this music functioned around some kind of a "drone," which is to say a big, low note that got held for a long time while other fast stuff happened high above it. Think: bagpipes.
Second, most of the music was modal. "Modes" are a cool concept in music. Imagine you were playing a scale in C Major. What would happen if, instead of going C to C, you went from G to G? It wouldn't be a G major scale -- it wouldn't have the right notes! -- instead, it would be a "mode" -- in this case, a "Mixolydian Mode." If you were to go from F to F, you'd be playing a "Lydian" mode, and so on. A lot of the music we heard operated with notes that weren't part of a traditional major or minor scale, but played with the same consistency as any other note. You can hear modal influence all over "Yo, Vikings!"
When Mom sings "Real Adventure", she sings a contemporary-sounding song in a Mixolydian mode. When Emma calls "Yo-o-o Vikings!" it's an ancient yodel over a drone, but set against non-modal chords that are more clearly derived from today's music.
Fri. Feb 6 and 13 at 7:30 pm
Sat. Feb 7 and 14 at 2 pm
Sun. Feb. 8 and 15 at 2 pm
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall
300 Beechwood Avenue
Carnegie, PA 15106