Every family has secrets. For some, these secrets are shrouded in pools of silence that hide a truth perhaps too difficult to confront. In their new musical, Elysium: An American Fable, Yianni Papadimos and Ben Chavez explore the consequences faced by a family that has mastered the art of wearing masks, staying silent, and skirting delicately around truths. The moving story, written by Papadimos and complimented by Chavez’s artfully-written score, played out on the stage of Village Theatre last weekend as the opener to the venue’s 18th Festival of New Musicals.
The concept behind the annual festival is simple: Polishing a new musical to a degree that makes it ready for publication and production is extremely difficult; a show’s writers benefit greatly from seeing their work performed on a stage in front of an audience willing to give constructive feedback. Five shows were selected to be a part of the process, which entails a week of rehearsal — no actor can spend more than 29 hours on their given role — that culminates in a staged reading in front of a paying audience. While the performances are by necessity bare bones — without costumes, sets, lighting, or props — they are by no means lacking. Professional actors bring the script and score to life, elevating the writers’ words and allowing the audience a peek into the complex process that goes into creating of a new piece of art.
The Friday evening performance of Elysium set the bar high for the weekend. The family drama follows two timelines: One, a coming-out narrative of a recent high school graduate in rural Ohio; the other, his two sisters, seven years later, reuniting for their father’s funeral and piecing together the night of their brother’s death.
The inspiration for the story, writer Yianni Papadimos said, is partially autobiographical.
“I’m from rural Ohio, and coming out of the closet in rural Ohio left me with a lot of questions about how the outcome could have gone,” he said. “I’m lucky that my family and my friends have by and large been incredibly supportive and loving in my coming-out process. But in the back of my head, I think about what could have gone wrong, and what could have happened if things had gone wrong. And that’s what our musical explores.”
Composer Ben Chavez also experienced his own process of coming out while at NYU Tisch New Studio on Broadway, where he and Papadimos met and started collaborating during their sophomore year. Of the four shows they have written together, both agree that Elysium seems the most poignant because of its echoes to their own personal experiences.
“In our other three (musicals), we definitely tried to draw parallels with society because we always want there to be lessons learned,” Chavez said. “But these lessons are especially close to us.”
The lessons in Elysium are connected to the importance of being communicative and open, especially with loved ones. The Harmon family, around whom the play rotates, finds honest communication difficult for a host of complicated reasons. Nick, a recent high school grad, falls in love with his childhood best friend but has to hide the budding relationship from his homophobic father. Hank, the father, has abusive tendencies toward his three children that seem to stem from the trauma of losing his wife with the birth of his youngest daughter, Tabby. And Tabby, who feels obligated to care for her father and keep Nick’s secret, buries the truth of her older brother’s death, which she witnessed but lies about for seven years.
“With this show specifically, we want people to walk out and communicate,” said Papadimos. “This show is about a family that can’t quite communicate, or can’t communicate properly, and how that can be so devastating when things go wrong. We want people to walk out of this and call their fathers, their sisters, their families, and engage in conversations that they have maybe been afraid to have. Helping people to pick up things that have been rough in the past and figure out how to move past them is something that we strive to achieve in our writing.”
The opportunity to be a part of the Festival of New Musicals at Village Theatre is exciting for the New York-based duo because it is their first chance to see their work performed by professional actors under the direction of a professional director — in their case, Village Theatre’s new artistic director Jerry Dixon.
“(The experience) allows us to see the work that we have created in a very clean way,” Chavez said. “Our goal is definitely to get a full production mounted in the near future, whether it be at Village or somewhere else. Every step, we like to think, is a step toward a full production.”
At the reading’s conclusion, audience members provided feedback to Papadimos and Chavez that will hopefully be of help as they continue the already three-year process of writing, tinkering with, and perfecting Elysium until it is ready to make its official debut.