Conn College students compose songs for new musical by professor that takes inspiration from ‘Peer Gynt’ and Madonna

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The musical premiering this weekend at Connecticut College is the happy result of some first-time collaborations and unusual influences.

The story by professor and playwright Ken Prestininzi pulls inspiration from Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” — and from the life of Madonna.

Much of the music is written by New York jazz musician Alphonso Horne, with lyrics by Prestininzi.

But some songs were created by Conn students who were taking a songwriting class last fall whose co-instructors were college President Katherine Bergeron and Butch Rovan, a composer who is faculty director of the Brown Arts Initiative at Brown University and who is Bergeron’s husband. The students likewise worked with lyrics by Prestininzi.

“I really think that this collaboration may be a first,” Bergeron says. “Not the first time a new play is incubated on a college campus but the first time students at a liberal arts college collaborated with a nationally known playwright to create a new work for musical theater.”

Rovan echoes those sentiment about what a singular opportunity this project was for the students.

“That incredible opportunity to collaborate with Ken on the musical was very unusual … That just doesn’t really happen, that students would get a chance to collaborate with a world-class playwright like Ken and actually have it produced. And maybe what’s more remarkable is have it produced so soon,” he says. “Usually, these things are like a year or two in the making. Here, it’s like OK, you’re going to write songs, and this is going to be onstage next semester.”

Indeed, students will give public performances of “Dee” this weekend in the college’s Palmer Auditorium.

Here’s how the project began: Prestininzi has always loved “Peer Gynt” and has returned to that play often over the years.

When he was on sabbatical last year, he began writing a play that reimagined the main character in “Peer Gynt” as a young woman in modern America, a singer who wants to break out of her stifling home life and to try to, as Madonna once said about her own goals, “rule the world.”

Petrininzi collaborated with Horne on some songs for the piece. The thought was to start with a late-1970s sensibility and, by the end of her journey, bring the sound close to today’s, Prestininzi says. There are other influences, too, particularly church music, so it’s Broadway, church and pop-rock — the same influences you’ll see in Madonna’s music.

The resulting musical was “Dee.”

Last summer, Prestininzi happened to bump into Bergeron and Rovan. Prestininzi mentioned the musical he was working on, and Bergeron and Rovan talked about the fall course they were heading up at Conn. Prestininzi asked if the students in that class might write some of the songs for his production, and they all saw the value of the idea.

Prestininzi says, “This is one of the major experiences in American theater, to birth a new musical.”

The 16 students in Bergeron’s class took the plunge.

Composing themselves

The course was the first one Bergeron had taught since becoming the Conn College president in January 2014.

Naturally, it was a music course, since Bergeron has a rich background in the subject. She earned her bachelor of arts in music from Wesleyan University and master’s and doctoral degrees in music history from Cornell University. She was a professor of music at Brown University and at the University of California, Berkeley.

The class was called “On Songs and Songwriting” and focused both on music criticism and music composition.

In it, Bergeron says, “Students are learning to write about songs at the same time they are learning to write songs.”

The students had varying degrees of music experience — some already sang, some were in a band, some had written songs before but some had not. They read Prestininzi’s play and discussed its possibilities and challenges. They listened to some of the compositions that Horne had already written for “Dee.”

The students then were split into teams of two and assigned a scene. Next step: contemplating what would be appropriate music for that point in the show.

“That means the students had to consider the mood of the scene, the characters who are singing, the kind of energy and rhythm the number deserves,” Bergeron says.

They workshopped their music in class. After rehearsals began in January and they saw and heard their songs as part of the larger work, they revised and refined the compositions.

Rovan says it was great seeing how the creative teams jelled. A lot of times, songwriting is a solitary process, he notes, and giving the students a chance to work in a collaborative setting brought out something different.

Prestininzi loved the results and ended up using four of the songs in “Dee.”

Bergeron says that the songs are “stylistically very original, creative. They don’t sound like every other song in musical theater. I think that’s what makes them so fresh and surprising.”

Bringing something original to life

George Grotheer, one of the students who worked on songs, says, “It’s definitely something that was an incredible learning opportunity and process, to bring something original to life.”

He and Colin Archer collaborated on "I Am a Celebrity,” and they each took the lead in developing different aspects of the number. Archer did a lot of work condensing lyrics from the 3-1/2 pages they were given, and he worked a good deal on the melody. Grotheer focused more on putting together harmonic progressions and figuring out the chord structures.

The tune is performed when Dee is in an asylum where other patients are unsure of their own identities and latch onto Dee’s identity as their own.

Grotheer, a senior majoring in English and music performance who is playing multiple parts in “Dee,” says, “It was very interesting because we wanted to pull from not only the genres we listen to in our everyday lives, but we also wanted to create this big musical theater number that best fit the moment in the show and the idea of putting together this new piece of theater.”

Sophomore Max Toscano wasn’t in the songwriting class but gets to perform two numbers in “Dee,” one by Horne and one a student collaboration by Emily Ehler and Becca Nash. He says the music in “Dee” is very diverse; one of the things he loves most about the show is he thinks there is something for everyone. For instance, one of Toscano’s solos is on Horne’s “Long-Legged Ingrid,” which he describes as being almost like a New Orleans funeral march. Meanwhile, “People These Days,” the song by Ehler and Nash, starts with a dark, classical tone and morphs into a very theatrical, uptempo piece before returning to the original mood, he says.

Writing songs for “Dee” was just one of a variety of assignments the students had for the class. They completed their own original songs as their final project and did a professional recording in the studios on campus. A CD of those tunes will be released later this year.

A phantasmagoric road trip

Prestininzi originally was working on a musical adaptation of “Peer Gynt” itself but eventually started looking to possible American equivalents. That’s where the Madonna angle came in.

Prestininzi, who is from a working-class Italian-American family in Detroit, has followed Madonna’s career over the years; she likewise is from a working-class Italian-American family living near Detroit.

Discussing the links between Madonna and Peer Gynt, he says, “Madonna is famously known as a business woman and someone who invents herself over and over and who draws on past icons (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich, dance clubs, etc.) to do so, as well as draws on the theatrical power of the search and our quest to be loved. All of these themes underline Peer Gynt.”

He saw multiple connections between Peer Gynt and Madonna. For instance, Peer grew up without a father, and Madonna was a child when her mother died.

“That void seems to power both forward to become more; both were looked down upon and ridiculed for ‘dreaming bigger’ and wanting more than their station allowed,” Prestininzi says.

He adds, “The riddle of how do you know who is the true ‘self,’ or are we always putting on a show or ourselves, is at the heart of both plays.”

“Dee” is a parable and, in terms of its storyline, it’s a bit like a “Wizard of Oz” or “Phantom Toolbooth” road trip for adults, he says. It’s a concert tour, with Dee telling her story.

As for the process of the students writing songs for an original musical, Prestininzi says, “I knew it was a big mountain, and I can say in front of the students, I’m so glad we took it on …. I think we’re really making something I’m astonished by and proud of.”

 

If you go

What: The new musical "Dee"

Where: Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, Mohegan Avenue, New London

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $18 ($8 seniors and students)

For info: (860) 439-2605, www.conncoll.edu

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