Detroit Public Theatre co-founder Courtney Burkett loves musicals, but she has no interest in rehashing the hackneyed classics of the genre.
“We’re not the kind of company that’s going to be doing ‘My Fair Lady’ or ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,’ ” Burkett says flatly.
So for the fledgling DPT’s first full-blown musical and second-season opening show, Burkett and her team went about as far in the opposite direction as one could imagine. “Murder Ballad,” directed by Burkett and running through Oct. 23 at Allesee Hall, is a thoroughly contemporary rock musical with strictly adult content.
The show follows Sara, a bartender who cleans up her life after a breakup with her boyfriend, Tom. Sara settles down and has a child with the more clean-cut Michael, but as she grows tired of her new life she reconnects with Tom. As a love triangle ensues, the play builds a sense of mystery around which of the trio is headed for the grisly fate foretold by the show’s title.
After DPT’s successful debut season, Burkett says she felt comfortable leading off the company’s second season with the sexy, sordid show.
“We learned a lot about our audience, and most of what we learned about our audience I find really exciting,” she says. “They tend to be really open to us doing sophisticated work and doing challenging work.”
“Murder Ballad” has found considerable success since it premiered off-Broadway in 2012, spawning productions in Japan, China, Korea and the U.K. Julia Jordan, the show’s New York City-based playwright, says she’s still surprised at the project’s success. The play developed when Jordan invited composer Juliana Nash to join her at a two-week playwrights’ retreat in 2010. Jordan and Nash met years earlier while both were waiting tables in New York.
“We were just really good friends and we thought it would be fun,” Jordan says. “We didn’t think anything was going to come of it.”
Jordan’s past experience with writing more conventional musicals, combined with Nash’s work as singer-songwriter for the alt-rock band Talking to Animals, resulted in an unusual spin on the rock musical concept. Jordan says the very plot-driven form of traditional murder ballad songs helped inform the way she and Nash crafted the show.
“(Murder ballads) have turns, have reveals, have secrets,” she says. “I had just a general idea that I would like to use one to tell the story, and that would allow us to write songs that would go between the verses and choruses, that wouldn’t have to push the story forward in the same way that musical theater generally wants songs to.”
Although Burkett and Nash both take a rather subversive approach to musical theater, the star of Detroit’s “Murder Ballad” is unabashed in her enthusiasm for any iteration of the form. Arianna Bergamaschi, an Italian native who plays Sara in the show, moved to Royal Oak in 2009 for her husband’s work as head of the Fiat brand. She has continued to work between Milan, Italy, and her home in Bloomfield Hills as a stage and TV actress and singer. But after attending her first DPT show earlier this year and connecting with Burkett, “Murder Ballad” will mark Bergamaschi’s U.S. theater debut.
Bergamaschi says the show allows her to realize a lifelong dream of doing musical theater in the U.S.
“Musical theater is like opera in Italy,” she says. “Opera is more Italian culture and musical theater is the American culture. You are the people that created this amazing show. For me, it’s like to be where everything started.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Through Oct. 23
3711 Woodward, Detroit