‘Here’ and now: ‘You Are Here’ at the Terris gives voice to a woman of a certain age
Goodspeed fans have become happily familiar with the work of composer-lyricist Neil Bartram and librettist Brian Hill over the past decade. Not only have the duo participated in the theater’s Festival of New Musicals, but they have also seen a trio of their musicals performed at Goodspeed’s developmental Terris Theatre in Chester.
The first show was “The Story of My Life,” about the friendship between two men from age 6 to 35, and the year was 2008. Goodspeed was a stop on “Life’s” way to Broadway.
Their second show at the Terris was “The Theory of Relativity” in 2015.
And that latter musical inspired the show Bartram and Hill are now doing at the Terris titled “You Are Here.”
“The Theory of Relativity,” you see, was focused on college-aged youths. That got Bartram and Hill contemplating another age bracket. How many wonderful actresses in their middle years, they thought, don’t get as many performing opportunities as they might deserve? And when those actresses do get hired, they are often relegated to being secondary characters.
They thought, Bartram recalls, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to put them front and center in something and see what story we could tell? I think the idea stemmed from (Hill) … I sort of launched the idea of a person who starts over late in life. I was fascinated by the idea of somebody late in life just taking a U-turn and saying, ‘This isn’t the direction I want to go. There’s got to be more.’”
Bartram and Hill began bouncing around ideas of where to put this woman for maximum impact. The late 1960s seemed a perfect time frame, since the world was shifting greatly at the time, in terms of music, politics, the women’s movement and more.
With their main character doing something out of her own comfort zone, Bartram and Hill hit upon a metaphorical equivalent that could help inspire her to step out of her life: the moon landing, which was a great moment where humans did something out of the ordinary.
And so “You Are Here” takes this woman — Diana, 58 years old, long wed, and living in Chicago — on a journey of self-discovery. Diana is played at Goodspeed by Patti Cohenour, whose Broadway credits include being the first American actress to play Christine in the original company of “Phantom of the Opera.”
Diana goes on a journey from suburbia to urban Chicago, and she meets a trio of characters who change her — a Vietnam vet, a maid working at a hotel, and Diana’s friend Joan.
As they were writing the piece, Hill says, “We realized there’s a parallel with ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ this woman going someplace she’s never been and stumbling upon three people along the way that teach her a life lesson. We have our own version of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.”
Expanding her life
Diana, Bartram explains, “has been repressed. She’s never really asked questions of herself or made demands on herself … Checking into a hotel is something she had never done — even that is a struggle for her because her husband would have always done it, not that they went on many vacations. Her only frame of reference is the kind of things she’d see on television.”
In fact, she had been witnessing the world through the TV screen and through the newspaper rather than experiencing it herself.
“My grandmother lived a life exactly like this,” Hill says. “It was the same thing every single day. She never learned how to drive. She was given an allowance to buy groceries. That was her life.”
Diana is far from the only person to have made a decision in her early years without realizing it was a life decision. Once that happens, how does a person get out of that life, or do they even think about getting out of it?
“You Are Here” has a contemporary music theater score, although Bartram does lean a bit into the 1960s time frame. There are hints of a Burt Bacharach sound here, a Joni Mitchell style there. “Without being pastiche-y, they evoke the era, I hope,” he says.
From ‘Plaid’ to ‘Here’
Bartram and Hill, who both grew up just outside of Toronto, met as young actors in the original Toronto company of “Forever Plaid.” Soon afterward, they started writing together.
“I got into acting by default,” Bartram says. “It was this crazy thing. I shouldn’t have been acting in the first place. Not that I was bad, but I had gone to school for music and composition, so I wanted to write.”
He hadn't been that interested in theater growing up. When he began acting, though, he realized that he liked musical theater songs and that his style of writing fit better in that world. Growing up, he loved Billy Joel and Elton John and wanted to be a singer-songwriter. But the feedback he always got was that his songs were too theatrical. He thinks that’s because he likes songs that tell a story.
“As a theater writer, I felt like, ‘Oh, now I found my place. This is where I belong,’” Bartram says.
Hill, on the other hand, was hooked on theater since he was a kid.
“In fact, the same grandmother I mentioned earlier, who lived the very life that’s represented in this play, was the one who introduced me to all the classic musicals when I was 6 years old,” he says.
He still remembers when she put “Brigadoon” on the turntable, and he heard that show’s overture for the first time.
“I just went (he gasps). ‘What is this thing? It’s amazing!’” Hill says. “… That was it. I did a lot of community theater and children’s theater. I just loved it. I loved the people. I loved all the strange and wonderful people you get to hang out with.”
Bartram and Hill got a commission out of the blue to take over a theater company’s training program in Canada and write a show for them. That show, a 45-minute piece titled “Somewhere in the World,” ran for five years. And their career took off from there.
Bartram and Hill, who are now a married couple, have developed a wide-ranging list of credits. Their “Story of My Life,” which starred Will Chase and Malcolm Gets, earned four Drama Desk nominations. Their current projects include adaptations of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Hill was director and dramaturg of “Come From Away” at Goodspeed, Canadian Music Theatre Project and National Alliance for Musical Theatre. He was resident director of the Toronto and Broadway companies of “The Lion King.” Bartram recently wrote the score for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s and Asolo Rep’s productions of “Shakespeare in Love.”
And there is “You Are Here.” Hill notes that the show is a rollercoaster ride for the audience, and Bartram says, “I feel like it tells an interesting story about this woman’s journey. It’s still funny, and it’s entertaining … It’s not meant to be dour or depressing. But it also might get people thinking, ‘What would I do if I had to change or wanted to change my life?’”
“You Are Here,” The Terris Theatre, 33 North Main St., Chester; opens Friday and runs through June 10; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; tickets start at $49; (860) 873-8668.