The modern American musical began in 1943 with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” an ode to the pastoral life of the Midwest. It begins with male protagonist Curly wandering by his favorite gal Laurey’s farmhouse and marveling, at the top of his voice, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. ”
His teenage stepdaughter, Stina, is watching from the shadows, but far from being horrified by what she sees, she seems to be turned on by it. She prances around for Red, showing off her new yellow swimsuit. “Be sweet on me,” Stina sings in the very first song, “I take well to flattery. . . . Do you think I’m pretty? Do I glow like the skin of the sun?”
“Maybe no musical has ever opened like that before,” Schmidt admits, “but that scene opens a very clear window on a situation and on our empathy for people in isolation. These characters have all these urges and no outlet for them. It’s no coincidence that all the top-rated TV shows in the Midwest involve crime in the most perverse manner.”
“Both Red and Stina are victims,” Vavrek adds. “Each is the only person that the other person is likely to see on any given day. Moreover, she’s of age and not blood related to her stepfather at all. It’s a kind of burlesque, but burlesque can be described in two ways: as a heightened form of satire, where you describe someone’s situation and then take it over the top, or as a confrontation, where you take the audience right up to the edge of the stage where they have to come face-to-face with the person in the costume. There’s a little bit of both here.”
Those two definitions bear on this opening scene. The situation is unusual, to say the least, but Stina and Red respond to the situation not like cartoon ids but like real human beings with contradictory feelings. The second song, “A Million Poses,” has Red struggling with the desires aroused by Stina’s fashion modeling. She’s “gonna be the death of me,” he sings, but he hopes that she won’t “stop short of a million poses.”
Schmidt’s music for that song has the herky-jerky rhythm of a rock-and-roll song about frustrated desire, but it has the more adventuresome chord changes of cabaret or modern art music. He wrote the lyrics with Vavrek, who wrote the dialogue. Vavrek has been a successful librettist in the opera world, and the sense of worlds colliding echoes through this show.
“I’m doing the orchestration: drums, piano, accordion, guitar, banjo, mandolin and tuba,” Schmidt says. “It’s an oompah band on steroids; it’ll sound hip. ‘Shame of My Loving You,’ for example, is an homage to the great Motown ballads of the ’60s but switched around to the rural Midwest. I grew up loving D.C.’s own Fugazi, though I loved Boston, too. I played in a Southern-rock band and an Afro-Cuban jazz-punk band while studying new music in college.”
The two writers have long worked — successfully — on opera and musical theater in New York; Vavrek is best known for the operas “Dog Days” and “27,” while Schmidt is best known for “Adding Machine” and the Ford’s Theater production of “A Christmas Carol.” Nonetheless, they both have rural roots. Vavrek grew up in Grand Prairie, Alberta, 5½ hours from Edmonton, while Schmidt grew up in Wisconsin and often visited relatives in hinterland towns not unlike Grand Prairie.
“So many great artists come from locations like those,” Schmidt points out, “and that place is deeply embedded in their characters. But they don’t realize it until they move to one of the coasts. If we’re going to talk about the Midwest, which has been much maligned lately, we have to acknowledge that touchy-feely conversations are not part of that culture. It took a long time for me to get comfortable with the fact that I had emotions that I could discuss openly with my family and the people I grew up with. And I was, compared to most of those people, a relatively chatty person.”
Vavrek was working at the Musical Theater Initiative at the Public Theater in Manhattan when Schmidt came in to preview some songs for his then-forthcoming show, “A Minister’s Wife.” They hit it off at once and decided to write a song together about a lonely Midwestern teenager. That led to more songs and, eventually, an invitation from Signature to create a full-length musical about that character.
“What made those early songs sing,” Vavrek says, “is having this isolated character and her expansive emotional landscapes to explore. It was such a rich territory to discover. The actual narrative became uncovered as we worked on it. Then we got to populate her world with a family, biological and not. That initial song paved the way to explore this hostile, sexualized landscape.”
“Midwestern Gothic” has an unstable farmhand who lusts after the female lead, not unlike the character Jud in “Oklahoma!” Like Laurey with Aunt Eller, Stina has a mother figure, but one so bored that she is looking for dangerous trouble, too. While Curly and Laurey worry in their big duet that “People Will Say We’re in Love,” Stina and Red worry in theirs about “The Shame of My Loving You.”
“I want to emphasize that we’re not making fun of these characters,” Schmidt adds. “What I dislike about this genre is how easy it is to take potshots at these people. We’re not depicting these people as rubes, because that would mean making fun of ourselves. We’ve tried to portray the situation with as much empathy as possible.”
If Tennessee Williams’s writing is described as Southern Gothic, Schmidt asks, what happens when you take that sensibility and move it to a region where folks are not natural-born, flamboyant storytellers? How do they reveal their own Gothic tendencies? “Midwestern Gothic” aims to find out.
Correction: The original version of this article reported the incorrect premiere date for “Midwestern Gothic.” The musical opens at Signature Theatre on Tuesday, March 14.
If you go
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.
Dates: Tuesday through April 30.