Musicals at the Fringe: Sing, dance, take a chance

  • Article by: KAREN ZAMORA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2014 - 3:13 PM

Despite constraints of time and budget, some Fringe producers see the musical as a shortcut to audience emotions.

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Gemma Irish and Mark Sweeney stage “Into the Unreal City.”

Photo: RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Among 169 shows at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival, 21 are musicals. What could their producers have been thinking?

The constraints of the Fringe — micro-budgets, a 60-minutes-and-you’re-gonged time limit, cheapskate production values, short rehearsal periods — would seem to run counter to the DNA of the average musical. You know, lavish sets, big cast, live music, song and dance.

But at the Fringe, producers of musicals must do lots with less.

“We bought really simple costumes, everyone has their own instrument, and we didn’t spend too much money on props,” said local playwright Gemma Irish. Her Fringe show, “Into the Unreal City,” will take audiences on a walking tour of Minneapolis’ West Bank, with songs.

Even with the odds against her, Irish said, it’s the risk that makes producing a musical more rewarding.

“If it’s possible to pull off a musical walking tour, which I think it is, then the Fringe is absolutely the place where I want to try,” Irish said. “The audience always shows up with a smile on their face ready for whatever you’ve got for them.”

The Fringe opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 10, with shows of every description firing at more than 19 venues. Each show was selected by lottery in February and will have a chance to perform five times during the 11-day festival.

Mainstays of the Fringe

Challenges aside, musicals are not unusual at the Fringe. Over the years, veterans fondly recall such shows as “Soulless, Bloodsucking Lawyers: A Musical,” “Reefer Madness: The Musical” and “Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical.”

Irish teamed up with Mark Sweeney, who wrote last year’s Fringe musical called “The Unknown Matters.” They gave themselves a humble budget of $2,200 for their six-person cast of “Unreal City.” Irish, a Fringe musical newbie, wrote the script, and Sweeney wrote the music and lyrics.

Their piece is a site-specific, traveling story about the “human experience.” It comes with its own set of obstacles, such as playing instruments loud enough to be heard by 20 audience members while walking in traffic.

“It’s not on a stage, there is no facade, [the actors] are not wearing makeup, they are not in amazing costumes. It is just two people having a moment and singing to each other and it’s kind of great,” Irish said. “We create a moment of theatricality and heightened reality within everyday scenarios.”

Bringing musicals to everyday life prompted local lawyer Toni Halleen to write “Bloodsucking Lawyers,” which debuted at the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival and was that year’s bestselling show.

“I grew up loving musicals, and experience my life in song,” Halleen said. “But not everyone feels that way about musicals; some people fear it like clowns.”

Maybe because producing a musical on a budget is no easy task.

Kickstarter as backer

Fringe newcomer Anders Mattson took to Kickstarter and raised more than $1,500 for his original musical, “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” The nine-person cast (including him) and two live musicians volunteered their time for the production.

“The goal was to do it cheaply and still put on a really good show,” he said. “It’s flattering to me that they are willing to donate their time to be in this show, and it means, to me, that they believe in the music.”

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  • MINNESOTA

    FRINGE FESTIVAL

    What: An unjuried cavalcade of 169 hourlong dramas, comedies, musicals and more.

    Where: Nineteen Mpls. venues in Uptown, downtown and the West Bank.

    When: Shows start at 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. weekends, July 31-Aug. 10.

    Tickets: $12, $5 for ages 12 and under, with multi-show passes available in a range of prices, fringefestival.org.

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