Do they still read The Scarlet Letter in high school? Set in Puritan New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne's 19th century novel of sin and redemption has been required reading for generations of teens, an audience more likely to flirt with the former than worry about the latter. This fall, however, one set of Indianapolis college students is walking in the shoes of famed fallen woman Hester Prynne to explore her story's timeless lessons about personal responsibility and societal hypocrisy, and a few new lessons about musical theater.
The University of Indianapolis' musical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, opening this Friday, has thrust students and faculty alike into the exciting, maddening universe of a musical work in progress. How do you turn 19th century prose into 21st century song? How do you portray Puritans without making them look like Thanksgiving Pilgrims? Of the UIndy cast and crew, no one has endured more re-writes or song shuffles than music professor Pete Schmutte, who first scored the musical Shame 25 years ago.
Back in the eighties, Pete Schmutte and then business partner David Blomquist wrote the musical to take a break from writing jingles and other commercial compositions for clients who didn't seem to know what they wanted or how to articulate it.
"They'd say, 'It's breakfast and I'm hungry,'" jokes Schmutte, who now coordinates UIndy's music technology and recording program. "'I want eggs, but I won't tell you which kind I want.'" Schmutte and his partner's job was to write music and words over and over again until they guessed right – scrambled, fried, or poached.
To get away from the guessing game, the writing team worked on Shame. Blomquist wrote the script and Schmutte and another composer wrote the music. Inspired by the Broadway production of Dreamgirls and rock musicals trendy at the time, they gave the 17th century tale a strong backbeat. Shame won a Beef 'n' Boards run and the cursory interest of an off-Broadway producer, but looking back, says Schmutte, the music didn't fit the story.
"We were being imitative of what we thought was hip," says Schmutte, realizing that all those years ago, they were still trying to please some mysterious idea of what other people wanted. Decades later, Schmutte is comfortable writing songs that simply makes sense. They are there, he says, to heighten the play's sense of character and emotion, and above all, to be "singable."
Last school year, as UIndy's music and theater departments considered musicals to stage this season, Schmutte offered up Shame for revision. Theater department director Brad Wright signed on to expand the script over the summer, while Schmutte reworked the music. For a more cohesive score, Schmutte cut any songs he hadn't written and added three new songs. The goal was not a big musical production, but rather a two-act play with music. Still, their summer project spilled over into fall rehearsals as students grappled with a continually changing script.
"I cannot hand the cast any more pieces of paper with lines through them," said Wright in an interview two weeks before opening night. While the constant revisions have been challenging for all involved, he believes they have helped students stretch their acting muscles.
UIndy's mission, says Wright, is to prepare theater students for a range of professional experiences with a diversity of student performances, from Beckett to Shepherd, from Hamlet to Pippin. Original works, however, have not been the focus. Wright likes that Shame is preparing students for the real world, where new play readings can get an actor's foot in the theater door. And although Wright ordinarily demands that students stick strictly to dialogue as written, he believes Shame's frequent revisions have increased their flexibility and understanding of the writing process.
To expand the 90-minute play, Wright went back to Hawthorne's original, a slim novel filled with paragraph-long sentences weighty with adjectives and subordinate clauses. With some passages, it wasn't until rehearsals began that Wright knew if his dialogue would work or not. Hawthorne's ornate prose, unfortunately, did not work for the two young actresses who take turns playing Hester's seven-year-old daughter, Pearl, over five performances. They just could not pronounce the words.
Despite Hawthorne's dated style, Wright admires how he wove themes and imagery throughout the novel.
"There's a reason that this is a classic, that it has the reputation that it does," says Wright. He was struck by the layering of the personal and the societal and of small images that leave powerful impressions. When Hawthorne's image of a babbling brook didn't fit well into dialogue, Wright asked Schmutte to turn the brook into music. It is now one of his favorite songs.
Most of the time, writer and composer have been on the same wave length with each other and their director, associate faculty member Jennifer Alexander, who most recently collaborated with Schmutte to stage Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan. They agreed that Shame is not about Puritan society, but about Hester, her one-time lover Reverend Dimmesdale, and her vengeful husband Roger Chillingworth. And of this fictional trio, they agreed Hester should dominate the story, with her inspiring ability to survive society's harsh judgment and grow stronger for it.
"I've fallen in love with Pete's music," says Alexander. "He has written great solos for Hester and this has been an amazing growing experience for Arianne [Villareal, the junior who plays Hester]."
It has not been all praise and ease. Throughout summer script readings, swapping emails of revisions and CDs of Schmutte's music, the three have juggled their professional roles with very personal ones. Alexander and Wright are in a relationship and socialize frequently with Schmutte and his wife. The writer-director couple, especially, had to curtail conversations about Shame, setting work appointments to talk about the play, for fear it would overrun their personal life.
All three stress that they are professionals who want the same thing: a terrific production. Each has given and received their share of criticism from the others.
After making several musical nips and tucks for his collaborators, Schmutte knows that there is still one song in Shame that Alexander doesn't like. He takes consolation in another song that, though she once thought of cutting it, now moves her to tears.
Wright clashed with Alexander over the set. As he wrote, he imagined a realistic set of the Boston settlement, but the director wanted something more abstract and the designer delivered with rolling platforms and wooden slat walls suspended from the rafters. Wright, who frequently directs UIndy productions, told himself what he so often tells students: You can't direct from the word processor.
"It's the actors that flesh out [the script] and the director who has the vision," says Wright. "That's part of the contract with the playwright. If you want to be the only driving force behind your art, theater probably isn't for you."
"It is a blessing and a curse to have [the playwright] around and listening," says Alexander. Wright was there to simplify lines and modify scenes, but he was also there to "discuss" her interpretations of his work, something a dead playwright would never dare do.
"We have to take time to trust one another," concludes Schmutte of the real-life trio's close working relationship. When he conducts his small orchestra on opening night, he doesn't want to hear the rustle of candy wrappers in bored hands. He's trusting Alexander, like Hester, to make the very most of Shame.