Larissa Cahill of Claremont has written her first jukebox musical, and it is a tribute to the music that her mother loved in the late 1970s and to the it-will-not-die fascination that young people today seem to have with zombies.
Cahill and the Claremont Repertory Theatre Company consists of Stevens High School graduates who have gone on to college and maintained an interest in theater. They produce one play each summer, and they start to plan it in March.
“We decide as a company what to do,” said Cahill, a theater teacher at Stevens. “We decided to do an original play because the young folks saw how much it cost to get the rights to a play and they got sticker shock.”
It costs about $2,000 to get permission to perform a play, she said, and that isn’t even the well known ones. “The less expensive ones were kind of terrible, with bad stories and bad songs.”
Cahill and her company decided they could write a musical that was at least as good, if not better.
“We found a zombie one that was not good, and said we ‘We can do this,’” Cahill laughed. “Those zombies were reanimated from 1957, but I wanted mine to be from 1978, so we could do ‘70s music.”
The theater teacher described her mother as a “disco queen” who loved Donna (“I Feel Love”) Summer and Gloria (“I Will Survive”) Gaynor, but also the other pop music of the era.
Cahill has written plays before, some of them for children, but never a full-length fully-realized musical.
After growing up in Syracuse, New York, she attended SUNY Oswego where she got her bachelor’s degree in theater. She moved to southern California and got an education degree from Concordia University in Irvine. She then worked as a drama coach in a Costa Mesa high school and at the Orange County Therapeutic Arts Center, a facility for at-risk youth.
“I also worked for a lot of small theater companies around orange County,” she said, “and I wrote a lot of Christmas plays, most of which were performed in churches.” She came back east to get her master’s degree at Antioch New England in Keene, and 14 years ago began to work at Stevens.
“Last Dance: the Zombie Musical” is a collaborative work, according to Cahill.
She said she would throw out questions to the company and they would give her feedback and ideas. Questions like: what made the zombies reanimate? Who are they? Why are they here? Here, as it turns out, is a fictional version of Claremont, called “Clamrot” in the production.
“We poke fun at elements of our community,” Cahill said, “and parody some of the local place names.”
Cahill brought something personal to the mix too. One zombie character is a tribute to her late stepfather Tony, who was a bouncer and a club owner.
The title track, “Last Dance,” is a Donna Summer song that will usually be sung by former music teacher Cher Aubin, well known in Claremont as a performer, but on Saturday night, when Aubin has another commitment, Cahill will make a cameo.
“I’ve got what I call a ‘Disney princess’ voice,” Cahill said, “but Cher is helping me develop a bigger, broader voice.”
The playwright had Act 1 fully written when auditions began in June. “But we had more auditions than parts,” Cahill said, “so I wrote some in [to Act 2] to involve more people. Act 2 was fun to write because I was writing for the actors.”
The sets for “Last Dance” are built by the Claremont Opera House staff and will include a cemetery, a ruined disco, and a street.
To some extent the plot is driven by the songs that Cahill and her company wanted to sing and dance to. She named one of the characters Mandy, so the Barry Manilow song could be used to encapsulate a doomed human/zombie romance. And there are plenty of ‘70s songs with references to time and mortality, like Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” Quincy Jones’ “Just Once,” and the title number, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”
There is a cast of 21 plus a cameo appearance by 11 dancers from the Jenkins School of Dance. Cahill said there are an additional 8 to 10 people working backstage as well.
“The rep company is a collaboration [with the opera house] and gift to the community,” she said. “It is education for older youth; it teaches them the nuts and bolts of production, including how royalties work, and business end of theater.”
The summer productions are often, but not always, musicals. (Last summer they did Larry Blamire’s “Robin Hood,” a comedy without music.) Not only are musicals generally popular with audiences, but the actors like them too.
“They have to do acting, singing, and dancing,” Cahill said. “They bring all the elements together, and that’s really satisfying for an audience.”
-- BILL CHAISSON