Playwright builds her 'Shelter,' with no time to spare
"Yellow," Utah playwright Brittany Bullen's last theater production, turned on a storyline in which the diary of a woman's mother traveled back in time even as the plot moved forward.
"Shelter: A New Musical," Bullen's first foray into musical theater, moved in only one direction: straight ahead. The project involved marshaling a cast of almost 30, a production staff of 11 and an orchestra of 12.
"It's a bit like having a baby," said Bullen, a 27-year-old graduate of Ohio's Denison University with a degree in creative writing who grew up in Park City. "It's the only other time I've been this sleep-deprived, overwhelmed or intimidated."
Co-writing the musical with composer and brother-in-law Newell Bullen took eight months. It began as a vehicle for female actors, given the dearth of roles in musicals. It also seemed a next logical step after achieving Bullen's personal goal of playing the lead in last summer's production of the musical "Jane Eyre" at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
At times, it might seem as if Bullen's ambitions would prove larger than the project at hand. With orchestrations still to be written out, the script underwent a massive rewrite in March, Bullen said. But with the Murray Theatre venue already booked for dates in May, there was no looking back. Even the day before opening, the production had no lighting design in place.
"We really didn't have any lag time between finishing the show and putting it up," Bullen said. "We were putting it up even as we were finishing it."
Despite these myriad obstacles, Bullen's labor of musical theater love premiered May 25 with enough cohesion to let its story of love and determination in a Philadelphia women's shelter speak loudly and clearly.
On opening night, coordination between the cast and orchestra made more difficult by hall dynamics more suited to music than dialogue was at times shaky. The unabashed sentiment of the script and storyline sometimes spilled out of individual scenes. But the singing of lead characters Jeanine, played by Jessica Pearce, and Joshua, played by Matthew Wade Johnson, pulled it through. Miki Smith, who plays the shelter cook Willie, proved an estimable supporting role with her spirited dining-hall song.
Bullen admits her musical turns a few tight corners with creaky wheels here and there. Given the sheer size, not to mention its three-hour scale, she also knows everyone involved has every right to be proud. It's a "work in progress," she said, but one she hopes to take to a professional regional theater for further refinement.
"The hardest part was just tackling the subject matter in a way that was sensitive without being inaccurate," Bullen said. "It was important for me to create a work that could be shown in high schools where young women could produce, or see it, for themselves."
Bullen visited several shelters along the Wasatch Front for research, with some cast members even shadowing Salt Lake City panhandlers for tips on character development.
During performances, Newell Bullen, Brittany's 25-year-old brother-in-law and collaborator, conducts the orchestra situated at the back of the theater. Even armed with a degree in music composition from the University of Utah, he said the experience proved the most challenging undertaking of his career. He heads off to Boston University in the fall to begin a master's degree in choral conducting, but didn't want his work for "Shelter" to become a rush job.
"Every number must be unique in its own way, yet must also belong to a greater whole," he said. "When you're writing 26 pieces of music, that can be a challenge."
'Shelter: A New Musical'
When • Continues Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 28, at 7 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee Saturday
Where • Murray Theatre, 4959 S. State St., Murray
Info • $15, with all proceeds donated to local homeless agencies. Visit http://www.sheltermusical.charityhappenings.org for more information.