Behind the curtain: ATP’s co-founder talks ‘Life: The Broadway Experience’

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Alpine Theatre Project co-founder Luke Walrath is writing three columns explaining the group’s new original shows, titled “Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness.” Up this week, “Life,” which opens at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center July 13.

Many years ago, a friend of mine said to me, “Do you know what I love most about acting? You never ‘nail it.’ You’re striving for something that never can be absolutely achieved, which means you always have the opportunity to go out there the next night and try again.”

When we started Alpine Theatre Project 13 years ago, we intentionally wanted the word “project” in the company’s name because we knew that what we were starting was more than just a theater company — it was an ongoing project chasing an ever-elusive ideal: to positively impact our community by bringing world-class professional theater to Flathead)Valley residents and visitors. We will never “nail it,” but that gives us the opportunity to go out there year after year and try again.

There may be no greater expression of humanity than music and movement. No matter where you come from or when you lived, these two art forms have indelibly marked your lives in some way. They have given your hearts the voices they needed in times of triumph and pain, in moments of celebration and agony.

It seems these days we are bombarded by negativity and division on a daily basis. We at ATP could think of no better antidote to this — no better way to positively impact our community — than by using these two universal languages of music and dance to remind us of our common bonds and all we have to celebrate as humans. So we set out to produce our most ambitious season ever: a trilogy of original, inspiring musical revues that celebrate our common humanity on a personal, national and global level. We’re calling it, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When we say ambitious we mean it. These three shows contain 90 songs in 15 different languages in 20 different musical styles performed by 14 Broadway singers and dancers, and five professional musicians.

SO HOW does one create something like this? For the first in this editorial series, I’ll take you through the creation of our first show, “Life: the Broadway Experience,” opening July 13. ATP Artistic Director Betsi Morrison wanted to take the audience on a journey from birth to death, celebrating common life milestones using the music and movement of traditional Broadway shows. However, she wanted to present these classic Broadway tunes in new and unexpected ways.

Whether they’re from “Oklahoma!,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Man of La Mancha” or “Porgy and Bess,” the songs of Broadway’s golden age remain timeless because they speak to such basic ideas like love, loss, ambition and longing. And, like Shakespeare, they are so well-written they can stand up to new interpretation, revealing new sentiments in the process.

Morrison also wanted to draw parallels with modern equivalents, be they contemporary Broadway tunes or even modern pop songs with the same feeling. What if you brought out the flirtatious nature of “I Cain’t Say No” from “Oklahoma!” by mashing it up with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun?” What if you reimagined “Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” from “South Pacific” as a disco diva power anthem? What if you brought out the innocence of “Where is Love?” from “Oliver!” by making it a plaintive medieval motet? What if you mixed a classic Fred Astaire routine with hip hop to show timelessness of the rhythm?

Answering these questions meant relying on the imaginations and musical talents of ATP’s artists. Consequently, the creation of “Life: The Broadway Experience” has been the most collaborative of the summer’s three shows. Each rehearsal saw ATP’s choreographer working with dancers on stage while musicians worked out musical arrangements in the theater lobby, and actors gathered in groups in hallways and other rooms to figure out harmonies and rhythms.

After these focus group sessions the whole company would convene in the lobby for show and tell, whereby each group would present what it had been working on for Morrison, who would then offer notes to refine the piece within the context of the entire evening. Sometimes this went smoothly and the song or dance was exactly what Morrison needed for that particular moment in the show. Sometimes revisions had to be made. Sometimes the entire number had to be scrapped and the company had to start back at the drawing board.

After roughly seven days of this process, the content of “Life: The Broadway Experience” was complete, creating an emotional arc that will take the audience on the journey of life from beginning to end. It is also, in a way, a love letter to Broadway and the musical theater that we all grew up with.

With one show complete, it was time to shift the focus from the personal to the national level and create “Liberty: The American Experience.” But that’s a story for next week.

Luke Walrath is the co-founder of Alpine Theatre Project. Visit www.atpwhitefish.org or call 406-862-7469 for more information.

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