Rock opera "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World" opens at O'Neill

Kate Kilbane, left and Dan Moses, who wrote the rock opera “Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World,” now in development at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference.
Photo by Emily Sevin
Kate Kilbane, left and Dan Moses, who wrote the rock opera “Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World,” now in development at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference. Photo by Emily Sevin

Though both artistic disciplines center around songs, the day-to-day particulars of writing and playing in a rock band are very different than writing and preparing for a musical theater production.

This is an observation that occurred last autumn to Dan Moses and Kate Kilbane when they submitted "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World," their in-development rock musical, for consideration at the 41st Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference.

On the one hand, Kilbane and Moses, who are married and based in San Francisco, have a working, popular rock band called The Kilbanes that performs regularly in Northern California as well as on occasional national tours. At the same time, they've written two other rock musicals, "Weightless" and "The Medea Cycle," and collaborated on three more with established playwright Laura Gunderson.

What would it do to The Kilbanes' pre-existing schedule if, several months after the pair submitted "Eddie" to the conference, it was actually accepted?

"It's bizarre to plan life that far out," says Moses, shortly before a Thursday morning read-through of "Eddie the Marvelous" on a hot and humid morning at the O'Neill — because their musical was in fact one of three musicals selected for the conference out of almost 240 applicants. "We entered because the O'Neill is incredibly prestigious, and it would be amazing to be part of it and to be able to workshop the production. And we hoped for the best and we figured we'd just deal with it."

Kilbane adds, "Most of the time, The Kilbanes is a local band, so we also knew it's fairly easy and quick in terms of booking shows. So we made sure to have a few weeks available just in case ... and it happened."

Staged readings of the in-progress "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Safe the World" take place at 7 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. July 11 and 7 p.m. July 13.

The couple is seated at a table in one of the O'Neill's bustling rehearsal rooms, which is stocked with instruments and is slowly coming to life with personnel working on the project. "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World" is the story of a 20-something, unemployed high school dropout who lives with his mom and suffers from constrictive social and neural deficiencies. His survival mechanism is to retreat into a fantasy world where's he's the frontman of a David Bowie-style glam-rock band. But when mom's boyfriend decides to move into their apartment, Eddie's fragile balance and twin planes of existence are threatened.

In the context of the O'Neill NMTC mission, each production undergoes two weeks of individualized professional development with established professionals. "Eddie the Marvelous" debuted in 2014 at Berkeley Rep's Ground Floor Program and was selected for San Francisco's Theatreworks' New Works Festival in Aug., 2016. Moses and Kilbane, who provided the book, music and lyrics, are working with Evan Yionoulis, who is directing the production, as well as musical director Wiley DeWeese, dramaturge Carrie Chapter, a cast of five, and a four-piece band.

"Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World" is a very different work for Kilbane and Moses. Their music as The Kilbanes is sophisticated pop featuring Kilbane's melodic voice (she also plays bass) and Moses' distinctive keyboard flourishes.

"'Eddie' is a deliberate fracture for us. We wanted to force ourselves to work in a new direction," Kilbane says. "This is the first thing we've ever written that wasn't designed for my voice."

The character of Eddie is loosely based on a friend of Kilbane's. "I was having breakfast with him in this small town an hour east of LA," she explains, "and he's this wonderful person — a black gay man, a high-achievement academic, a comic-book nerd ... and I thought, 'Who are his peers?' There seemed to be a story, and we came up with comedic elements and this character with a glam rock obsession because that's great music."

Indeed, songs from "Eddie" such as "Walk a Thin Line," "Gravity" and "I'm Coming for You" spin from driving, King's X-style power rock to Queen's early prog to sweet touches of — yes — "Aladdin Sane"-era Bowie.

Moses and Kilbane say the process of writing about contemporary issues in, for them, a fresh musical style was exciting.

"Plus," Moses says, "(our) other two musicals were about myths with murdered babies. My mother-in-law kept asking, 'When are you two going to write something without dead babies?' So this should make her happy."

For the record, Kilbane and Moses have two children, both of whom are on site at the O'Neill and are happily playing at the time of the interview.

As the pre-rehearsal activity intensifies and it's time for them to get to work, they each take a moment to talk about the O'Neill experience.

"What we've accomplished in just two days is amazing. We're so excited to think about what we can do in two weeks," Moses says.

"The O'Neill has such an incredible reputation," adds Kilbane. "Everyone in the theater world knows about it. But what's particularly impressive is that the O'Neill has a mission. They tell you what they believe and aim for — but it's not just, you know, a publicity statement. Every single person here is committed in this mission, and it's in every aspect of what we do here. As artists, we can't tell you what that means and how liberating that is. We need to be able to push forward and step off the edge but also feel a safety component. That's what's happening. This place is unreal."

If you go

What: "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Change the World"

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and July 13, 3 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. July 1

Where: Rose Barn, Theater, The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Tickets: $30

Call: (860) 443-1238

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