Matthew Reddin

Local Boy Makes Good

Skylight’s new show is top composer Daron Hagen’s love letter to his home town of Milwaukee.

By - May 7th, 2014 01:55 pm
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Skylight Music Theatre’s production of I Hear America Singing — Photo by Mark Frohna

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of I Hear America Singing — Photo by Mark Frohna

When Daron Hagen saw his very first live opera, it was at the Skylight.

This is a fact made more interesting by Hagen’s identity: the Milwaukee native is one of the most esteemed composers of orchestral and operatic music working today. It’s also made more timely by the next show coming to the Skylight: I Hear America Singing, a musical Hagen’s developed for the company in part as a way to pay tribute to his birthplace.

Hagen’s return to Milwaukee comes at the behest of Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, who contacted Hagen to see if he would be interested in putting together a revue of American popular songs that fit into the Skylight’s season theme of “revolution.” While their initial concept hit a roadblock when they realized the songs they were interested in were still under copyright and therefore too expensive to license, Hagen then decided to go further back, taking songs in the public domain and radically reinterpreting them – thus fulfilling Subbaraman’s goal of a revolutionary piece and also giving him a great deal of freedom with the plot.

In its finished form, I Hear America Singing has become the story of three former friends: Robbie (Robert Frankenberry), a composer who’s reviving the musical that made him famous; Roger (Rick Pendzich), a former singer living in Milwaukee whose alcoholism ended his career and marriage; and Rose (Carol Greif), his ex-wife and a still-successful singer based in Chicago who’s thinking about putting her touring days behind her. As they rehearse, Hagen says, they find themselves reminiscing about the past, and embracing their personal reinventions.

And they find themselves performing the classic American tunes Hagen has worked into the story (including Civil War-era ballads like “The Vacant Chair” and Sousa marches), as well as new compositions he’s written specifically for the show. Hagen says the split between the two is about 50-50, but it might be hard to tell which is which. The pre-existing songs often come with new lyrics, and have been so reworked by Hagen that many of them don’t resemble their original sound much at all.

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of I Hear America Singing — Photo by Mark Frohna

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of I Hear America Singing — Photo by Mark Frohna

“It was important to me to put my own creative stamp on these found songs, as I am a composer, not an arranger,” Hagen says. “The audience deserves a well-thought out, coherent musical dialectic, and it was a fun challenge to create it.” That flexibility of reinvention gives Hagen the opportunity to dip deeply into 200 years of American musical history – from the super-vintage (a cappella drinking songs from the 1780s or 1820s folk songs) to the modern (a ‘40s-era Mills Brothers-style radio ensemble song, as well as a ‘70s soft rock number).

Hagen is directing the show himself as well as creating it, and he’s found the experience beneficial because of the collaborative atmosphere within the company. “Early in the rehearsal process,” he says, “I invited the various department heads in to a run-through and invited them to give me feedback, to serve as a sort of focus group. They did. And a lot of their suggestions made it into the show.”

He’s also enjoyed the opportunity to bring something new to life in the city where he began his career – starting all the way back at Pilgrim Park Junior High, where a chorus teacher first introduced him to the music theater tradition, and Uihlein Hall, where he decided to become a composer while listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra play Dvorak, and Humboldt Park, where the Park Promenade Youth Symphony premiered his first orchestral suite, a piece that led to his introduction to Leonard Bernstein and the beginning of his training on the East Coast. “It is central to my values as a person and as a creative artist to make things that are of use to the people who commission them,” Hagen says. “This show is an unabashed love letter to my hometown.”

I Hear America Singing opens May 9 and runs through June 1 at the Broadway Theater Center’s Studio Theatre. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or the Skylight Music Theatre’s website.


PREVIEW: Midsummer in Midwinter, at Theatre Gigante

We’ve just managed to escape the clutches of another long Wisconsin winter, so it seems insane to consider going back for more, even in theatrical form. Theatre Gigante is worth the gamble, with this adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that keeps the original’s premise – misguided lovers lost in the woods – but takes the action into the modern day, with three different couples, a Northwoods setting and, of course, a mischievous Puck. The cast features a variety of Gigante regulars, including John Kishline, Deborah Clifton and Bo Johnson, along with artistic directors Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson), as well as newer faces, threading in dance elements artfully performed by Edwin Olvera and Jessie Mae Scibek.

Midsummer in Midwinter opens May 9 and runs through May 17, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $15 for students, and can be purchased at 800-838-3006 or their online box office.


PREVIEW: Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, by Milwaukee Opera Theatre

Combining super heroics and opera of the Gilbert & Sullivan variety seemed like a much stranger proposition the first time Milwaukee Opera Theatre did it, with their 2012 premiere of Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom. This second time around, the Jason Powell operetta about a time-manipulating heroine who must draft a new sidekick from the citizenry when a very-British super villain and his entourage of powerful minions shows up in town, seems a lot more like what it is: a very good idea executed with a tonal precision perfect both for the form it adopts and the subject it depicts. The best part: MOT’s avoided the trap of a sequel that doesn’t live up to the original, by recreating the production with the same performers and creative team as the original production, warmed up for their roles by the cast recording they produced via Kickstarter last year.

Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom runs at the Alchemist Theatre from May 8 through May 24, with most performances at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22, with student rush tickets available 10 minutes before each performance for $10. To order, call 800-838-3006 or visit their online box office.



Windfall Theatre: Storefront Church, through May 17

Milwaukee Rep: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stackner Cabaret, through May 18

In Tandem Theatre: 1959 Pink Thunderbird, through May 18

Sunset Playhouse: I Hate Hamlet (NEW!), through May 18

First Stage: Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever, through June 1

Fireside Theater: Fiddler on the Roof, through June 8

0 thoughts on “Theater: Local Boy Makes Good”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wouldn’t have known the background to Daron Hagen’s productions without reading this review. Thank you, it’s always good to hear about someone loving his home town!

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