When you go to the Facebook page for the “The Dead English,” the new musical that premieres Thursday in a co-production between the American Repertory Theater of WNY and Theatre Jugend, you find the normal posts you’d see on such a site: updates from the director from rehearsals, information about tickets and the venue, that kind of thing.
But you’ll also see videos of a highly coveted workshop process, a luxury for a company premiering a piece. Director Drew McCabe and the show’s co-writers, Justin Karcher and Steven E. Sitzman, along with A.R.T. director Matthew LaChiusa, used the extra time to shepherd a show that has been in development for a year now.
The fortune of this extra incubation is not lost on McCabe.
“We all have a lot of love for the source material. We edited it and workshopped it,” says McCabe. “If we didn’t workshop it, it would not be in its current place. We did so much ahead of time, that right now, at this point, we’re good. That said, it’s been a long process.”
They’re not the only ones who love the source material – Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – so much. The gothic vampire novel has been subject to cyclical waves of revival since it was published in 1897. The Dracula tale, and the broader vampire genre, has remained relevant with audiences along the way. In its many incarnations, from Hollywood films, to TV romance-dramas, to the musical stage, Dracula has endured as resolutely as its titular character.
“To me it has always been the appeal of two things: man and monster,” says McCabe. “He’s that tragic character. He’s immortal and eternally young. And what’s more appealing than the idea of eternal youth?”
In writing an original score, Sitzman found influences in a number of rock-pop genres, and used their tropes in molding the characters. When it came to casting Anthony Alcocer as Dracula, Sitzman said they were looking to show a new side of the well-tread vampire.
“We’ve created a different Dracula,” says Sitzman. “He doesn’t have fangs or a Transylvania accent. Our Dracula is like Sebastian Bach from Skid Row,” the late-’80s heavy metal hair band. McCabe adds a few classic layers to that sketch.
“He’s your semi-1970s grindhouse version of Vlad the Impaler, but he’s also a chameleon,” says McCabe. “When he goes to seduce Lucy, he’s Freddie Mercury. When he goes to seduce Nina, who’s more virginal, he has to be Fred Astaire. He looks at each of the characters [closely], and his seduction is different for everybody.”
The reinterpretation of these characters as something out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not uncommon; the Gothic mystique of its Transylvania backdrop is ripe for electric guitar and permed hair (which is not exactly how the show’s production design has been described, but it’s in the vicinity). If the show’s creators feel a sense of duty, it is to both expand the work, and honor it.
“I feel like for every single type of Dracula fan, we’ve tried to give them some sort of homage to pull them in and enjoy our piece,” says McCabe, who has directed many new plays locally, and worked as a screenplay editor in Los Angeles. “You learn to do everything quick,” says McCabe of his work there.
In crafting the skeleton and textures of the show – which borrows liberally from Stoker’s epistolary text of letters, diary entries and other documents – relying on the input of their workshop and production casts was crucial for the show’s formative development. In some cases, actors helped to fine-tune their characters, while the on-stage band helped guide the diverging musical genres within.
“I’ve assembled a team of nonmusical theater people for this band,” says Sitzman, a songwriter who did the club thing in New York City before moving back to Buffalo. “They’re all sort of learning, as we all are, about creating a brand new musical. It’s nice to have the influences of these indie musicians. Even hearing people sing [my] songs and give it their little extra [something], it’s just such a compliment.”
The cast’s enthusiasm for this particular creative process mirrors the pride in the creators’ words.
“Our problem with the actors is, they love it so much, they come to rehearsal on days they’re not scheduled,” says McCabe. “That’s blown our minds. It’s flattering.”
This unique process, from writing to workshop to rehearsal to premiere production, is not a short or easy one, but it is a worthwhile one, especially here.
“We could do this, if we wanted to be in New York or L.A., for 10 years,” says McCabe. “But by being here it gives us the ability to still be young and do something that we enjoy doing. And by creating something a lot faster than we would have created anywhere else.”
What: “The Dead English”
When: Opens Thursday through Nov. 10
Where: American Repertory Theater of WNY, 16 Linwood Ave.
Tickets: $20 general, $15 students, veterans