Not all fairy tales end happily ever after.
That was the solemn note on which the grim new musical-in-progress “The Piper” left its audience this weekend during its first set of workshop performances, which starts at once upon a time and ends with the disappearance of an entire generation of children.
The show, with book and lyrics by Christian N. Føhrby ’14 and music by Copenhagen University musicology student Richard Plum, takes on one of the most disturbing of all children’s stories—that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the mysterious figure who danced into a storybook village to rid its residents of their rat problem and lured away their children while he was at it. While adding new characters and new political overtones, Fohrby and Plum’s take on the centuries-old tale does not shy away from the story’s haunting core. Writer-director Føhrby hopes to follow this two-weekend public workshop with a full staging at a later date, the early rendition of the script showed characters with absorbing emotional depth but a book and lyrics still in need of work.
In “The Piper,” Hamelin is a town beset not only by rats but also by a bumbling, reelection-obsessed mayor and a very unfavorable balance of trade. The simultaneous arrival of a band of merchants from Russia and a colorfully clothed stranger who says his flute can dispel disgusting critters seems to offer the solution to everyone’s problems. But the cost of the tuneful exterminator service is not cheap—the Piper demands a hatful of gold for his pest-killing performance. When the townspeople, spurred by the influence of the rumormongering youth Hannes (AJ Unitas Jr. ’16), refuse to pay the bill, the Piper extracts his revenge in horrific fashion.
The Piper and Hannes, who compete not only for economic influence but also for the affection of the mayor’s daughter (played with great feeling by Susanna B. Wolk ’14), formed an intriguing pair of characters who each mixed good and evil in catastrophic doses. As the Piper, Max R. McGillivray ’16 managed to be chilling when crafting his depraved plot to snatch the children while still tugging at sympathetic heartstrings up until the last moments of the show. All the while, McGillivray showed off the strongest vocals in the cast. With a finely controlled malicious streak, Unitas portrayed Hannes as an awkward young man pushed by his own insecurity over the brink into true villainy.
Other characters mostly offered comedic fodder to lighten the otherwise dismal story. In just a few lines, Joey R. Longstreet ’16 carved out a hilarious portrait of the one townsman who had grown fond of the ubiquitous rats. Taylor A. Cressler ’14 played the mayor with skillful physical comedy.
Performed as a workshop with scripts sometimes in hand, the show featured few traditional technical elements like costumes and scenery. The five-member, eight-piece band sat onstage behind the actors throughout the musical. Plum’s sophisticated compositions, brought to life by music director Madeline A. Smith ’14, charged the show with energy. Especially noteworthy was his cool use of a lilting European-style flute melody over a bass-and-guitar beat to create a modern-day sound for the Piper’s hypnotizing song.
Though the workshop was buoyed by a full slate of strong musical selections and by on-point actors, “The Piper” is still clearly a work in progress. Some of the show’s key plot points never quite made sense—how the mayor’s daughter somehow knew from the moment the Piper left town of the attack he would return to mount, and why the Piper, who seemed to have led a life filled with successful adventures before his very brief service to the city of Hamelin, would not brush off his humiliation but instead spend a year plotting his heinous revenge.
Most lyrics were one-dimensional and rhymes—like “kaput” with “suit”—were often clumsy. More significantly, the musical lost the opportunity to convey the full emotional impact of the children’s disappearance at the end of the show. No actors played children in the show, and no villager ever gave any indication of having a child, so until the moment the Piper came to take the children away, there was no build-up of familial ties that were doomed to be severed. After the Piper played and the townspeople woke up to find a generation wiped out, the script again failed to create a gut-wrenching moment. It detoured abruptly into a solo for the Russian salesman before returning to the presumably anguished parents—who showed more anger toward the Piper than grief over their unspeakably painful loss.
“The Piper,” ultimately, is a show about the terrible consequences of not keeping a promise—a message the production’s staff likely knows well. Their nascent work displayed great potential in its first staging, and as they revise it, it will undoubtedly fulfill that promise.
—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at email@example.com.