It’s hard enough being a teenager in love. Meddling aliens from outer space don’t make it any easier.
The new musical “Dreamland” is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic confection “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but instead of going into a fairy-infested forest, this hapless quartet of teens enters a desert: Nevada’s top-secret Area 51 where, if you believe “The X Files,” the U.S. Government stockpiles visiting aliens and their technology.
In this story, Area 51 becomes declassified and is being opened as a public attraction, renamed “Dreamland.” The U.S. military officially announces that the area is safe and completely free of aliens.
But one of those supposedly non-existent aliens, Puck, dressed in a glittery flapper dress, wants to make herself seen.
“Puck is supposed to be young and very bubbly. I am very bubbly and young,” said Sydney Scherrer, 15, who will be playing Puck this weekend at the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester, Pa. “I love playing my part. I don’t have to put on a faux personality. I feel like I can really bring out my inner self on stage.”
“Dreamland” was conceived by writers Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller for performers like Scherrer: young people with a passion for theater. The theater licensing company Concord Theatricals and the Educational Theatre Association commissioned Tysen and Miller to design a musical specifically for high school theater programs.
This production is staged by the educational department of Uptown! and the Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester, which pulls its performers from several area high schools. It runs this weekend only.
All the principal characters in “Dreamland” are younger people, the music is written in keys best befitting their developing voices, and the cast can be as big as the talent pool.
“A high school theater program means you have a lot of kids that want to be part of it. There’s only so many lead roles, there’s a specific amount of chorus. So you’re always breaking someone’s heart,” said Tysen. “If you can build a show that has flexible casting – we have aliens. You can have as many aliens as you want in this show. You can have five, you can have 10, you can have 80!”
The content – love and aliens – is more in line with teenaged imaginations. There is no need to personify, for example, a Jewish elder in a Russian village (Fiddler on the Roof) or a French revolutionary destined to die (Les Miserables).
Music director Scott Anthony says he often has had to manipulate popular Broadway shows to fit a younger cast.
“One of the ones I can think of that was tough, was ‘Pippin,’” he said. “The ranges do not fit the male roles. It’s really hard to get the boys to sing, at that age, these high, belting A’s. There are other scores that are just — they’re very good scores, but they’re just not really tailor fit to be sung by younger singers.”
Anthony says the music in Dreamland is easy to master, and grabs your ear.
“It’s not dumbed down. It’s actually well-written,” he said. “I like the music, but it’s simple and the kids didn’t have too much trouble picking it up.”
One of the standout numbers for Anthony is the title song, “Dreamland,” sung by one of the teenagers who is suddenly jilted by her boyfriend after being put under a love spell by Puck.
“It’s right after she has a confrontation with the two boys that are fighting over her friend,” said Darby Spackman, 17, who sings the part. “She’s mad at Dreamland for ruining her chances at getting what she wants. It’s her change of heart: This sucks, but I’m going to get through it.”
Songwriters Tysen and Miller have serious credentials under their belts. Together they wrote the music for the Broadway show “Tuck Everlasting.” Tysen also wrote the lyrics to the Broadway show “Paradise Square,” for which he is now nominated for a Tony Award, one of 10 nominations for that show.
“It’s a really big deal. And honestly, it hasn’t sunk in yet.” he said. “That has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write.”
“Dreamland” is different from “Paradise Square” in that the show never had its sights set on Broadway. It is part of a subset of the musical theater industry that is tailored to non-professionals.
Licensing companies often offer popular Broadway musicals that have been re-written and rearranged for high schools and community theater groups. But in his decade of writing professionally for theater, Tysen has never been asked to invent an entire show from scratch intended for young performers.
“I don’t think it’s common. It was the first time that I’ve ever been approached to do it. I would like to do it every year of my life,” he said. “It seems like everyone has their eyes set on Broadway no matter what the project is. Because of that, it takes so long to develop and to raise the money, to get the theater, and to see if it’s successful.”
Tysen said it usually takes several years for a Broadway-bound concept to come to fruition. He is currently working on a musical about The Great Gatsby.
Dreamland went much faster.
He and his writing partner Miller were approached by Concord and the Educational Theatre Association to write an original musical for a staged reading at the 2019 International Thespian Festival.
Tysen immediately sought the advice of the high school drama teacher at his alma mater: Salina South High School, in Salina, Kansas.
“The first thing I did was call Kate Lindsay and ask her: ‘When you’re picking a musical, what are you looking for?’” said Tysen. “The first thing she said is: a very big cast, some sort of educational component, and that it should be fun, something that the kids would get into.”
Unlike Paradise Square, which took about eight years to develop before it was staged, Tysen and Miller finished Dreamland in one year.
“There’s a little bit less pressure. Not that it’s going to make the work any less good. It’s that you’re just focused on the work. You’re trying to solve the problem, which is how do you write a great show that high school kids will enjoy doing?” Tysen said.
“So much of my job – I’ve watched this happen in the last 10 years – is that the writer has to become the producer. We have to start raising money and getting people behind us,” he said. “It was such a dream that they took a chance on us: the Educational Theatre Association and Concord just said, ‘Here’s some money, write a show.’”
“Dreamland” has never been produced professionally. So far it has been performed only once, at Tysen’s alma mater, Salina South High. The Uptown! in West Chester is giving it its East Coast premiere.
Stage manager Maggie O’Connor said it is not just more fun for the kids to be playing age-appropriate roles, it’s also more professional. If any of her performers have career ambitions, she says they would be better suited to have roles that fit.
“If they were to go out on a professional audition, they wouldn’t be playing Aunt Eller in ‘Oklahoma,’ you know? They wouldn’t be playing one of the guys in ‘Guys and Dolls,’” said O’Connor.”
Tysen is champing at the bit to write another high school musical, but the next commission from Concord Theatricals and the Educational Theatre Association went to his wife, songwriter Kate Kerrigan. Maybe next year.
Tysen graduated from Salina South High in 1995 but still keeps close ties. He went back to high school to see the premieres of Dreamland. He says Kate Lindsay, his former drama teacher, will be his date at the Tony Awards.
“My high school drama teacher is one of the most important people in my life,” said Tysen. “There’s not a lot of opportunities in Salina, Kansas, but somehow I got out of there and found a way into the arts. I like to remind students that you can do it.”
“Go Cougars,” he added.
Saturdays just got more interesting.