Michael Koerner uses music to tell stories that amuse and transport theater audiences. If he has a specialty, file it under whimsy, magic, comedy. He has composed songs and scores for dozens of shows in the Twin Cities and elsewhere over the past 35 years, including “Cyrano” and “Yang Zen Froggs” for Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and “Go, Dog. Go!” and “Madeline and the Gypsies” for Children’s Theatre.
His latest work, “Busytown The Musical,” opens Friday in Minneapolis.
Koerner likes to tell stories from his life that illustrate the power of music. One is about the mother who, early on, encouraged his theatrical pursuits in a small farming town in central Illinois.
“Whenever she was feeling down, she didn’t need pills,” Koerner said last week at a downtown Minneapolis coffee shop. “She would pull out a John Philip Sousa album — she owns about 15 of them — turn it up and let the sounds lift her right out of it.”
Koerner was playing piano, accompanying a ballet class at Minnesota Dance Theatre three years ago, when he suffered a mild stroke. Suddenly, he could barely will his fingers to play the keys.
Barbra Berlovitz, a longtime colleague and friend from the early days when she co-founded Jeune Lune, took him later to the hospital. He found out that he was lucky, because it was a relatively mild episode, and also it would not affect his ability to compose.
“Composing music requires both sides of the brain — the math side and the creative, dreamy side,” he said. “Every doctor I met told me how lucky I was that the stroke happened in an area of my brain that was the best-case scenario.”
Music — making it, listening to it, playing it — has helped him laugh and play and heal. He hopes that his music in “Busytown,” the comedic stage adaptation of Richard Scarry’s books that he did with lyricist and book writer Kevin Kling, will prove to be a similar elixir.
The show, performed in a cabaret-style setting and featuring songs to boogie to, orbits characters such as Huckle the Cat, Mistress Mouse and Lowly Worm, played by a company that includes CTC mainstays Reed Sigmund, Autumn Ness, Dean Holt and Gerald Drake.
“His songs are so witty, inventive and endlessly charming,” said Peter Brosius, artistic director at the Children’s Theatre. “What’s great is that he’s so innately dramaturgical. He understands how to tell a story, and the role that music plays in revealing plot and character.”
If the show is witty, Koerner takes no credit.
“The funny parts are all Kevin’s,” he said. “He’s a Minnesota treasure who has overcome every adversity, and yet he’s living his life. He’s my inspiration.”
Koerner is self-taught as a composer; he went to school for other things. His undergraduate degree, from Illinois Wesleyan University, is in psychology. His graduate degree, from the University of Minnesota, is in acting. So how did he know that he was a composer?
“Someone has to see it in you and tell you,” he said. For Koerner, it was several people at Jeune Lune. Fresh out of graduate school, he auditioned for the company in 1980, when they were casting “1929.” He wanted to act; they wanted him to be a live accompanist.
“In those days, Jeune Lune had live music in most of the shows,” said Berlovitz. “Michael’s background made him perfect for us, because we needed a musician who could act in the show, and he was a natural.”
As he developed his style, others began to notice his talent. Jon Cranney, artistic director at Children’s Theatre, hired Koerner for a two-year stint as resident composer and music director.
“He knows how a show is structured, and what you need, and he provides that musically,” Cranney said. “In theater, it’s great to have a team player like that.”
Koerner eventually stepped down from his staff job at CTC, but continued to work with the company.
“I’ve quit a lot of things in my career,” he said with mischievous laughter. “I quit Jeune Lune and went back. I quit the Children’s Theatre, and they took me back.”
Now, his life is far from carefree but it’s one that he thinks is full of joy. “You appreciate every chuckle, every laugh. We all have a finite amount of time and no matter how caught up we get in the things we do, we have to make the most of it.”
Tell that to the characters in “Busytown.”