It’s an odd choice to set 100-year-old wartime melodies to Jason Mraz-style rhythms, but that’s exactly what Musical Theater Heritage’s “Songs of the Great War” will do.
The production, created by Musical Theater Heritage founder George Harter, will feature 20 songs from the early 20th century — with a 21st-century twist. Expect “Danny Elfman-style” arrangements, hip-hop choreography and an in-the-round setting that puts performers 10 inches away from the audience.
“You hear ‘Songs of the Great War,’ a revue of songs from World War I, and you have immediate and definite expectations, no matter who you are,” director Tim Scott said. “And our goal, within the first four minutes of the show, is to shatter that.”
Originally slated to line up with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering the war (February 2017), the production will instead run Oct. 6-16. The National World War I Museum sponsors the show, which will charge no admission for veterans.
The revue features seven singers, everything from lyrical female voices that would fit well into World War I-era music to a classically trained opera tenor. The only performer who speaks in the show is Harter, who plays a narrator of sorts — similar to Che in “Evita” or Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” As the songs proceed chronologically, Harter describes how the music evolved and how the public reacted as the war effort lengthened.
But working with century-old music isn’t easy. Many of the popular songs from the period are set in a march time (with artists like George M. Cohan tapping into the military fervor), so playing them back-to-back as originally written would be boringly simple, Scott said. Instead, Scott, Harter and music director Jeremy Watson collaborated to breathe new life into the tunes with contemporary-style arrangements.
Of course, that’s only after Watson found the sheet music. Because many of the songs had not been updated or played for decades, finding them was a patchwork effort.
For months, the creators looked for Cohan’s “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune” to no avail. Although Scott tracked down three separate pieces of the song, there was no single score to be found. Just before the song was cut from the show, Watson searched numerous libraries, finally finding a version that, incidentally, was in the same key as one of Scott’s findings (a choral arrangement). So they decided to marry the two versions to create something new.
“We’re pretty much like Dr. Frankenstein the entire process,” Watson said. “We’ve got a good leg over there, and a good head over here; let’s put it together and see if it will walk around.”
The idea for the show came from Bob Lloyd, a Musical Theater Heritage board member and member of the William T. Kemper II Charitable Trust, which sponsors the theater. He approached Harter about presenting World War I-era songs, which he hadn’t heard for years.
But Harter wasn’t sold on the idea.
“We’re about musical theater; we’re about ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Hamilton,’ ” Harter said. “So I did a little preliminary research to come up with something to argue against it, and I discovered that we’re all familiar with the carnage and the horror of the first modern war, but what surprised me was that I learned how it radically changed the arts.”
That, combined with new perspectives from the creative team, resulted in the production as it is today. And the songs aren’t the only contemporary aspect; the actors are dressed in contemporary military-style clothing and dance through several songs, including a full-bodied arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War.”
“We didn’t want to do a museum piece,” Scott said. “We wanted to celebrate this music and show it’s still relevant, especially with the things happening in the world today. Every generation has a war; these songs and this story and this music shouldn’t only be accessible to historians. The messages and the sentiments should be applicable to really any generation that’s experienced a war.”
Also this week
▪ “Basetrack Live,” at 7 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Polsky Theatre, 12345 College Blvd. The Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College presents a play that follows a young Marine and his wife through his deployment to Afghanistan, the birth of their child and the injury that sends him home. See JCCC.edu/Performing-Arts-Series.
▪ “The Secret Comedy of Women: Girls Only,” Oct. 11-23 at the Cohen Community Stage House at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. The two-woman comedic variety show tackles the female experience through sketch comedy, improv, audience participation and musical numbers. See KCStarlight.com.