The summer was a busy one for University of Indianapolis faculty members Pete Schmutte and Brad Wright. Their task: to create a stage musical that will kick off the Department of Theatre’s 2010–11 season.
Titled Shame, the work is an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1850 novel of sin and redemption in puritanical 17th-century New England. Opening night is October 22.
“I fully expect to be reworking and adapting right up until opening,” says Schmutte, associate professor in the Department of Music, who is composing the music for the production. Wright is developing the lyrics and “book,” or script, incorporating some elements from an earlier version by David Blomquist.
The idea dates to the early 1980s, when Schmutte and a business partner were writing and recording music for advertising and corporate use. Feeling the need for an artistic outlet, they came up with the concept for “Shame” and composed a series of songs, with Blomquist filling in the narrative.Their initial version was staged briefly in the ’80s at Indianapolis’s Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, but the project went no further. The songs featured the pop, rock, and R&B influences that were trendy in musical theatre at the time, but in retrospect, they didn’t fit the story’s historic setting.
“I wanted it to be a little more operatic,” says Schmutte, who is composing music for woodwinds, brass, percussion, and two synthesizers that will provide the string sounds (to spare the expense of a full 33-piece pit orchestra).
As for the story, Schmutte and Wright agree that the original Shame lacked key elements, such as a satisfying conclusion and a strong central character—is it the embattled Hester Prynne? her guilt-ridden lover, Arthur Dimmesdale? or her cold-hearted husband, Roger Chillingworth?
“Who’s the play about? I contend that it’s about Hester,” Schmutte says.
But that’s where Wright, UIndy’s director of theatre, comes in. He’s going back to the source material, seeking ways to turn the long, stately novel into an accessible story suited for a two-hour live performance. Though Hawthorne’s work is considered a masterpiece of American literature, it includes a lot of third-person narrative and some stiff period dialogue that works fine on the page but not on the stage.
“People don’t talk like this, so we need dialogue that’s speakable for the actors but still resonates in that time frame,” Wright says. “You also have to put what was narrated into dramatic dialogue—we have to externalize that.”
Wright is developing storyboards and reading through draft scenes with students and theatre department colleague Jennifer Alexander, who will direct the UIndy production. They’ll ponder such questions as: Which episodes in the novel are crucial, and which can be left out? Which are better conveyed in song? What secondary characters can be fleshed out to provide action and the all-important comic relief for the live audience?
The process will be one of continual experimentation, which reflects the realities of professional theatre, Schmutte and Wright point out. Original stage works often undergo substantial changes, even after opening night.
“This is going to be a great experience for our students, because working on new scripts is a skill they need to develop,” Wright says.
“The night after preview (dress rehearsal) could be busy. Put on the coffee pot!” —Scott Hall