The job may be a first for Children’s Theatre — or any theater: “hockey choreographer.”
Kids wearing in-line skates will zip around the stage in Friday’s world premiere of “The Abominables,” Minnesota’s first-ever hockey musical, which was six years in the making.
People throughout the land of 10,000 rinks were interviewed to create a show that goes beyond the surface of our state pastime to explore issues of youth sports — from the pressures that athletes bear, to the sacrifices families make.
“What if kids decide, after years of training, that they don’t want do a sport anymore?” said director Steve Cosson. “And the parents, mostly moms, have to become these incredible managers who balance meals, sleep, homework, ice time, transportation and all of these things that make it another job. Crazy.”
Cosson wrote the show with music and lyrics by longtime collaborator Michael Friedman, who tragically died Saturday of AIDS-related causes at age 41, just six days before the opening. Friedman is best known for his score for the rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and for “Mr. Burns,” which played at the Guthrie two years ago.
Children’s Theatre is dedicating the production to Friedman. “He worked on the show until the very end,” said managing director Kimberly Motes. “The work would be great anyway but there’s a heightened energy to make this show quite special. I think the cast, the theater, everybody is going to rise to this.”
The plot revolves around two adolescent players, Mitch and Harry. A strong shooter, Mitch has been on “A” teams for most of his life. But without a growth spurt, he’s at a disadvantage when he tries out at the bantam level, vying with a new player, Harry, who is excellent on the ice but has a mysterious past. Mitch tries to undermine him but Harry just wants to be friends. Meanwhile, parents, coaches, families and other players get involved in what turns into an emotional mess.
“Youth sports is an emotionally rich and complicated minefield,” said Children’s Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius, who commissioned the show. “Everyone has memories of when they were chosen — or dropped a ball. God bless you if you shoot the puck into the wrong goal or pick up a fumble and run the wrong way, scoring a touchdown for the wrong team.
“Those things inspire us, scar us, affect us in profound ways. That’s why I’m so excited about this musical. It delves into all of that with such imagination and verve.”
Cosson and Friedman developed the musical under the aegis of the Civilians, a New York-based troupe famed for doing documentary theater. They delved into evangelical Christianity in Colorado for “This Beautiful City,” which the New York Times called “engaging, inquisitive and moving,” and into climate change with “The Great Immensity.”
The team conducted scores of interviews with rink rats, coaches and hockey parents throughout Minnesota. They attended tournaments in Duluth and tryouts in Rochester. They immersed themselves in all things puck, gleaning not just stories but attitudes, logistical details, the sounds of skates cutting through ice.
While there have been musicals with roller skates — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Starlight Express” and “Xanadu” come to mind — ice skates is another thing altogether.
Because of space and budget limitations, a rink couldn’t be built in the theater. (Imagine a Zamboni rumbling into Children’s Theatre.) “Our strategy was to put kids in in-line skates,” said Cosson. “Rollerblades look a lot like hockey skates.”
Another challenge was casting. Several of the 20 actors have played hockey but some had to learn to skate. So Cosson hired a hockey choreographer — Ryan Bourque, who specializes in staging fights for theaters including Steppenwolf in Chicago but also played the game as a youth. He taught the actors the basics of the game, and got them all skating comfortably. He joins dance choreographer Joe Chvala in translating the sport to the stage.
Lessons from a hockey mom
Interviews by Cosson’s team confirmed something that families of young athletes already know: Things have gotten totally out of hand, not just in terms of expenses, but also expectations.
“It’s a lot about the future path of your life,” said Cosson.
The pressure around sports reminds him of the tension around standardized tests. He recalled his own experience in fourth grade.
“Someone came in to talk about the résumé we would need to get into a good college,” said Cosson. “If you were really good at sports and had good grades, you needed a third thing to excel, like being student body president. For an uptight kid like me, I was like: ‘Omigod, I have to start now.’ And in our interviews, many believe if you don’t start in sports by fourth grade, you’re doomed.”
And while parents want to help their kids succeed, “that impulse can cross over into something that’s way over the top,” he said.
One of the hockey moms they interviewed was Margee Cory of Lino Lakes, whose daughter is a goalie for Ohio State. Her husband and son also played the sport.
“There are very important life lessons to be gleaned from sports, not just about winning but about commitment, self-discipline, goal-setting,” said Cory, who once moved with her daughter to Madison, Wis., for a year so she could attend a hockey academy. “Our kids play sports, yes, but they also play guitar and like the arts. We tried to raise balanced kids.”
Cory said that she’ll be at the theater, anxious to see the attention it brings to a pursuit she loves, warts and all.
The power of memory
One of those warts is the sulking siblings who are forced to watch their brothers’ or sisters’ games. Actor Autumn Ness, a Coon Rapids native who portrays Mitch’s mom, can testify to that, having grown up with a brother who played hockey.
“At the start of the show, there’s a little girl who is being dragged around to her hockey brother’s events, and she sings, ‘I’m the princess of everything that is not hockey,’ ” Ness said wistfully. “That was me, trapped in a land where everything’s always hockey.”
The show has evoked memories she did not expect: “What the ice smells like, what those rinks feel like — the sensory overload is pretty strong. Then there’s the knowledge I didn’t realize I had, like when a kid in the cast has 20 pieces of equipment to deal with. I know the exact order, from shin pads to socks to the big shorts so you don’t break a tailbone. Holy cow, everything comes rushing back.”
What’s also surprising is how she feels about it.
“I kind of hated hockey a little when I was a kid, or thought I did, being pulled into your brother’s activity,” she said. “Now, here I am, and all this affection is rushing out. What was so terrible then is now, in my memory, this rinky wonderland.”