By Katy Macek | Photographed by Hillary Schave
As director of Music Theatre of Madison, Meghan Randolph has two missions for her shows: Make them unique and, when possible, make them local.
With MTM’s October production of “Held: A Musical Fantasy,” Randolph is accomplishing both of these goals, and then some. The show was co-written by local authors and musicians and has had three runs: At Broom Street Theater in Madison as well as the New York Fringe Festival and New York Musicals Festival.
The creative minds behind the current production are all women. Kelly Maxwell wrote the book on which the play is based, and she also wrote the lyrics. Meghan Rose wrote the music. It’s directed by Isabella Anastasia Leigh, and Lisa Mueller is the music director.
Randolph wanted to take the show’s fourth run a step further by teaming up with two local organizations to bring additional visual components to the experience.
“This show has been done with just the cast and the band, and it’s wonderful that way,” Randolph says, “but I thought, ‘What if we reached into the community and found some ways to do something totally different?’ This is the first time (writers) Kelly and Meghan have been totally hands off, and I thought we should give them something brand new.”
So she reached out to friends Christina Martin-Wright, executive director of Arts For All Wisconsin (formerly VSA Wisconsin), an organization that provides arts programs to children and adults with disabilities, and Marin Johnson, director and choreographer for the pre-professional dance group, X-Tension Dance Company.
Arts For All Wisconsin members are creating tapestry and textile art, Martin-Wright says. She hired two guest artists to lead free workshops for those with disabilities to help dye, sew, paint and embellish tapestries that will comprise the show’s set.
Those tapestries will be inspired by the music and what the script means to those artists, which Randolph thinks will add a compelling component.
“That’s what’s cool about this musical,” she says. “It resonates with everybody a little bit differently because it’s so out there, in a good way.”
In addition to the locally made set, X-Tension Dance Company will add a physical movement element to the show. Three dancers are learning choreography to mimic the three main characters in the show, says Johnson. The dancers will help move through transitions in the show.
“Oftentimes with dance you’re trying to portray an emotion or a mood, and this one is cool because they are representing the characters, so they’ll actually have a character,” Johnson says. “That’s a cool opportunity.”
“Held” is the story of three lifelong friends who are trapped by the Blood Wizard and spend the show figuring out who is holding them hostage. While doing so, the three examine their relationships over time. The show only has three actors and takes place in a different world filled with magical elements and heightened language, an aspect that immediately drew in Randolph.
“It’s very fantasy, which is not necessarily in my realm or the realm of a lot of musicals,” Randolph says. “It’s made up in its own world and its own rules, and that’s pretty rare in musical theater.”
She describes the script as “sumptuous” and “almost Shakespearean,” with a unique style of music. It is not told in chronological order. Yet, she adds, it’s accessible to everyone, even those who are not fans of the fantasy world, much like herself.
That was the goal when Maxwell wrote the script for her first feature-length show after being asked if she’d like a slot in a season at Broom Street Theater. She adapted it from a 10-minute play she wrote for a local theater group. Originally titled “I Have To,” Maxwell says she was intentional in creating a wholly connected world, where every character’s action was supported and moved toward a big, final action.
“It’s very much a relationship piece, a story of lifelong friendship and what can happen if you don’t allow people to grow within the confines of that kind of closeness,” Maxwell says. “The story, script, characters, everything is tight. I tried to have no extra words. Everything is purposeful, and I love it when the actors get the script verbatim.”
One of her best friends, Meghan Rose, wrote the music for the show. Rose, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, says she was delighted to collaborate on the full script.
No matter who acts or directs the show, Rose says each iteration has stayed fairly consistent. She ties that back to Maxwell’s writing.
“Kelly’s language is very poetic, and she inhabited that world so well for so long while writing it that we haven’t changed much, if anything, and same with my music,” Rose says. “We love what we made, and the script and story aren’t so rigid that it can’t be directed in new ways.”
That’s what’s most exciting and terrifying about this latest version, which will be the first time neither Rose nor Maxwell will be involved in the production.
“It’s super exciting and scary,” Maxwell says of their hands-off approach. “I can’t wait to see what [MTM] does. What will they do without me telling them what to do?”
But she’s excited for the possibilities and says she has full faith in MTM and the show’s director, Isabel Anastasia Leigh.
Martin-Wright is excited to see how the dancers, artists and actors come together to create a new version of an already unique show. She hopes the collaboration of organizations will encourage audience members to be open to other perspectives and see what that kind of collaboration can do.
“I hope [the audience is] inspired,” Martin-Wright says, “by witnessing what can be created when different people with different perspectives and different abilities come together.”
“Held” runs Oct. 17-19 at Threshold, 2717 Atwood Ave. Thursday’s opening night performance will be a “pay-what-you-can” night. Additional outreach performances at Arts For All and in Mount Horeb.