Editor's note: Due to a breakthrough case of COVID-19 on the production team, all remaining performances of "WILD: A Musical Becoming" are canceled as of Dec. 20.
A single mother struggling to hold on to her family farm, a teenage daughter empowered by her own resolution to fight climate change, and elements of fantasy all converge in American Repertory Theater’s new concert production “WILD: A Musical Becoming.” Opening Dec. 9, the show is one that breaks from conventions, with a pop inspired score, a focus on environmental activism and a call for the audience to use their imaginations as a way of interpreting what they’re seeing. The story, which is very much a fable, was written by playwright V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, and the music was composed by songwriting duo Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell. It is directed by A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus and stars actress Idina Menzel.
Much of the framework for the show was conceived when Tranter and Menzel joined V at her farm in upstate New York, where they collaboratively cooked up ideas. A mother, Bea (played by Menzel), is faced with the possibility of leasing her farm, a decision that her daughter Sophia (played by actress YDE) feels would go against her commitment to preserving the environment. Sophia and her friends band together, demanding that older generations wake up to the crisis that is in front of them.
“I really wanted to be creating some kind of story about young people, because I’m so in awe of the climate change movement,” says V. “Every young person knows that if we don’t change, then they’re not going to have a future. They know that instinctively, they know that intellectually, and they learn about it in school. Young people know this in their bodies. The musical really addresses the conflict that struggling farmers have in surviving, versus how we as human beings are struggling to survive on the planet. Those situations are often at odds with each other. …One of the things that fables allow us to do is take everything to a supernatural level, so that we can actually look at where we are.”
Tranter and Pennell created a score that is meant to sound contemporary, with songs that easily get stuck in your head. The music also has a strong folk influence, says Tranter, who draws inspiration from singers like Patty Larkin and Patty Griffin. In one song, “Panic,” a chorus of young people sing with urgency, “We want you to panic/ We want you to act/ You stole our future, and we want it back,” a theme that Tranter calls a protest moment or anthem.
Aspects of character are revealed through the stylings of the songs. “We gave the adults the more theatrical songs, especially in the ensemble pieces, to lean into that old-school [vibe]. The divide between old generation and new generation, we wanted it to be represented even musically,” Tranter says. “Songs like ‘Becoming’ and ‘Take Us with You’ are very current, young sounding. [With] ‘Bea, Get Your Daughter in Order’ [and others] — some of these songs are very, on purpose, old-school theater vibes, but [we] still have a couple little modern, pop hooks in everything.”
Menzel, in the development of the musical, has been both a performer and creative team member, having collaborated with the composers to write some of the songs. To find the inspiration for one song, “Human,” which is sung by Sophia, Menzel sat down with Tranter and Pennell at a piano and began improvising.
“I just started singing. A lot of times, it’s gibberish, but I just kind of sing from my heart, what I’m feeling, first and foremost, and then find the right words for that melody.” She adds, “It’s about the yearning that this character feels, a young girl. The yearning that she feels to change a world that’s being stubborn and not listening to her. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about this piece. Even older generations, and as parents, we can still find that within ourselves, that feeling of not being seen or heard, when we’re trying to tell somebody what we believe. … It’s sort of like a howling. It’s a call to action.”
Her character, Bea, is facing a dilemma that is a reality for many people living in farming country, and as a single mother, she grapples with figuring out how to provide for her family. When harvest is poor, one year to the next, putting food on the table becomes a hardship, and Bea is forced to make choices.
“She’s a woman who came from this land, that she farms. She loves this land,” says Menzel. “It’s who she is. She’s taught her daughter everything she knows. But her life and her struggle have hardened her and perhaps brought her further away from her original idealism and love for the land that she lives on. Because she’s just trying to make ends meet and [is] the only woman farmer in this community and all that comes with that.”
YDE describes the mother-daughter relationship between Sophia and Bea as being a central focus of the story. Approaching the unique bond that they share was an important part of character preparation, for her.
“Ultimately, the dynamic between Bea and Sophia is really a dynamic between two people who have such a deep-seated love for each other…But they have different perspectives, just as every human on earth does,” YDE says. “Throughout the story, we see Sophia grow into even more of who she already is, and she’s willing to fight for her perspective. She’s willing to stand up for what she knows is right. And Bea is caught between a rock and a hard place. She knows what she has to do, what she should do, and what she should fight for. And she also knows what society has put on her. She knows that ultimately, she has to survive.”
Paulus says that in bringing “WILD” to life, she hopes to address the question how can creators shift the paradigm and contribute, as artists, to the conversation on climate change? The production brings with it a different way of thinking about theater, one that centers the subject matter through the power of the imagination.
“The way we’re presenting it, it’s actually taking theater back to its roots, in telling stories. [It’s] coming around a campfire or coming around a folk concert, hearing stories and listening to a narrative,” Paulus says. Adding, “The musical form allows you this unique mix of ingredients. That’s why I love the musical theater. It’s words, story, imagery, choreography, music, song, lyrics. What’s particularly exciting about this show is the network of ingredients that are going into it. They feel very exciting and very needed for this moment.”