As he sat in the eighth-floor lobby of the Illusion Theater, waiting for rehearsal to start for his new musical, Chan Poling had a realization. The theater world is taking him more seriously now because of the success of “Glensheen,” the musical whodunit that sold out its premiere run last October at the History Theatre in St. Paul (and is coming back in July).
“People looked at ‘Glensheen’ and said, ‘You guys can write,’ ” said Poling, who has for years balanced musical performance (with bands the Suburbs and the New Standards) and a yen for theater composition.
“We knew that they could, way before that,” interjected Bonnie Morris, the Illusion’s producing director. “We have been with this project for a long time.”
The project in question is “A Night in Olympus,” which previews Thursday in Minneapolis. The show was workshopped at Illusion in 2012, but it sprang from another work that had been much longer in the making.
The question that animates “Olympus” centers on personal insecurity: Why are so many people so uncomfortable in their own skins that they wish to be someone else?
“I’ve been exploring this theme for a while,” Poling said.
From ‘Venus’ to ‘Olympus’
He certainly has. Poling, who fronted the Suburbs in the Minneapolis new wave era, started composing music for theater in 1989 for Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The Ordway, in the early 2000s, commissioned him to write “Heaven” with playwright Craig Wright, and the work was staged in the Guthrie studio in 2011.
In 2009, Poling wrote music, lyrics and book for “Venus,” which premiered at the Ritz Theater. That show, which took a decade to make and cost $100,000 to mount, was a Jekyll-and-Hyde story about a college professor who gets her wish to become a supermodel.
It was muddled and wanting, in part because composer Poling was a novice at playwriting. After the show closed, he called in a real playwright, Jeffrey Hatcher, who, in turn, tapped Bill Corbett to look at the ideas in the play.
“Olympus” is so far removed from “Venus,” both in its music and its story, as to be only tangentially related, said Hatcher, who also wrote the book for “Glensheen.” However, he and Corbett took the well-worn themes at the center of “Venus” — that you go out in search of perfection only to find that you are good enough — and reset the whole thing in a high school. Corbett also urged that all the teachers be Greek and Roman gods and goddesses who have been exiled to the prairie. Thus, this “Olympus” is located not in some mythic mountain range but in pancake-flat Indiana.
“There are some motifs in the music that repeat, but 90 percent of it is new,” Hatcher said.
Although the themes in “Olympus” are ever-present in shows from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Diary of the Wimpy Kid the Musical,” now up in a premiere at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, “Olympus” treats them “with fun, lightness and kinetic theatricality,” said Corbett, a writer for the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” “The music has always been the main event, and I was happy to contribute to a light book around it that amplifies its themes.”
Youthful love triangle
“Olympus” orbits the youthful triangle of Maggie, her male BFF Harry, and Chad, the hot guy with whom she’d like to go to prom. Maggie does not think that she’s pretty enough to ask Chad out, so she offhandedly says out loud that she wishes to become the most beautiful girl in the world. Her teacher, a fallen Greek goddess, overhears her and grants her wish. Complications follow, of course.
“Everyone has a part of Maggie inside of themselves,” said McKinnley Aitchison, who is playing Maggie opposite Tyler Michael’s Harry in the biggest role of her career. Adam Qualls portrays Chad.
The “Olympus” cast includes Mark Rosenwinkel, Norah Long, Aimee K. Bryant, Dieter Bierbrauer and Randy Schmeling. At the rehearsal, held in the lobby because the set was being installed in the theater, the cast and creative team hovered around a piano and worked on the opening number, which vividly sets up the show, and contrasts myth and reality.
Poling, director Michael Robins and arranger Robert Elhai (who also arranged “Glensheen”) were hashing out ideas, trying to tighten the score.
Poling wanted to eliminate some chords. Elhai, who was nominated for a Tony for his work on “The Lion King,” was not so sure.
The section “is not that precious, where you have to put it in a frame and hang it on a wall,” said Poling, drawing a square with his hands.
But Elhai pleaded for more time.
“Let’s wait till we get it up onstage,” he said. “I just don’t want to step on the magic.”