Nebraska hosts staged reading of new musical ‘Eric Hermannson’s Soul’

Nathan Tysen (left) and Chris Miller meet with students in the Glenn Korff School of Music. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.
Nathan Tysen (left) and Chris Miller meet with students in the Glenn Korff School of Music. Photo by Michael Reinmiller.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln on April 30 hosted a staged reading premiere of a new musical by award-winning composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen based on Willa Cather’s short story, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” at the Lied Commons, with support from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Cather Project.

Miller and Tysen were also guest artists-in-residence in the Glenn Korff School of Music.

“I had the read the story when I was in high school and fell in love with it,” Miller said. “It was something that I always wanted to turn into a musical.”

Originally published in 1900, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” tells the story of Eric Hermannson, a young Norwegian with a deep love for music and dance, who is converted to Free Gospelism. During the conversion, he destroys his violin and vows never to dance again. Years later, New Yorker Margaret Elliott arrives with her brother, Wyllis. This is their final adventure before Margaret marries her East Coast fiancé. Quietly, Eric and Margaret fall in love. She leaves to marry, and Eric reclaims music in his life.

“I fell in love with the story because there’s a longing to it,” Miller said. “And it’s about music. I like [Cather’s] perspective. I love her voice. I love her language, and it lends itself to theatrical interpretation. The fact that it’s about music and the prairie, our works tend to be from an American perspective and about American folk heroes. We wanted to explore that in this part of the country.”

Miller also composed a song cycle, "April Twilights," that set 13 of Cather’s poems that premiered on April 22 in Westbrook Recital Hall. The premiere coincided with the upcoming publication of an anthology of Cather’s poetry edited by the Director of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Cather Project and Professor of English Guy Reynolds.

Alisa Belflower, Coordinator of Musical Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, develops a new reading every other year for her students.

“It gives the students such an advantage to work with writing teams of both composers, lyricists and book writers from the top of the field,” she said. “These two writers, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen together had two shows on Broadway last season, and to have them in Lincoln is pretty remarkable.”

Miller and Tysen were represented on Broadway with “Tuck Everlasting” (Miller-music; Tysen-lyrics) and the adaptation of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film “Amelie” (Tysen-lyrics). Miller and Tysen were also in Lincoln in 2006 to develop their show, “The Burnt Part Boys,” a musical about West Virginia coal country.

“That show went through the natural years of development and ran in New York at Playwrights Horizons and had a cast album,” Belflower said. “They have been so sweet and never forgetting that and being thankful for that bit of a start. It’s so cool because thanks to the University of Nebraska, our development is on the liner notes for the CD, and it was a wonderful experience.”

Miller and Tysen were looking forward to hearing “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” run through for the first time at Nebraska.

“Just hearing it all together and sort of feeling the shape of it and how it flows,” Miller said.

Tysen added, “We also are really impressed with the voices that the University of Nebraska has. Before we came to Nebraska, we basically sang through the score for the theatre that commissioned us, but it was just us singing all of the songs. It got a little tiring. Last night was my first night [in Lincoln], and they just read through the whole thing, and we got to hear all these songs. Chris is a fantastic vocal arranger, so we heard all this difficult, fun, exciting music, but then also performed really, really well.”

Miller said this kind of development is critical to the creation of a musical.

“We’re at the beginning of the process, and so to be able to try it out on students before we take it to the professional world is really helpful,” he said. “We sort of have this free development, as it were, to try things out and explore without the trappings of show business. Because once you start down that road, the cooks in the kitchen tend to multiply. We’re sort of in that sacred space of having a learning experience and being students as well, learning about the piece and with the students without the anxiety of show business hanging over our heads.”

Miller and Tysen both grew up around music and met at New York University’s graduate program in music theatre writing. They both like the infinite possibilities of telling a story with musical theatre.

“The fact that you can really approach it any way and tell a story,” said Miller, who is originally from Silver Spring, Maryland. “Musical theatre is like a cousin or sibling to Jazz. It’s a great American art form, and what we can do within it, the possibilities are infinite.”

Tysen, who is from Salina, Kansas, said he grew up listening to great music.

“My parents had a great record collection, but I found that the records I listened to the most were the musicals,” he said. “I didn’t see a lot of shows, but I think it was the storytelling. I love the way that a song can tell a story and can heighten all of the emotional beats in just the right way and can make someone fell something, but I think what we strive for in the theatre is try to make it feel as honest as possible. I think that’s one of the reasons that we love this ‘Eric Hermannson’s Soul,’ because music is at the center of it. It’s about this man letting go of music, losing it and then coming back to it.”

Miller and Tysen were looking forward to beginning development of “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” in Nebraska, the home of Cather.

“When we decided to work on this show, we were like ‘Of course, we’ll have to go back to UNL and Alisa and do the first draft here,’ because it just makes sense,” Miller said. “It’s just like Willa Cather’s spirit is all around us. It’s really sort of the perfect place to hear this particular work for the first time.”

Tysen said the students understand that as well.

“The students get it, too,” he said. “Many of them are from small towns or from farms. They still have found music.”

Following their development at Nebraska, Miller and Tysen will take the work to development and readings in New York and a workshop in California, before staging productions at Playwrights Horizons in New York City and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California, which both co-commissioned the piece.

“In a perfect world, people might see it within two years,” Miller said. “Once the production at Playwrights Horizons happens, it could move to Broadway or it could just be a show that happens and be out in the world.”

Belflower said the entire opportunity to develop the show in Nebraska is exciting for the students.

“It’s a fabulous credit for a resume because it’s kind of the equivalent of having a New York credit while staying in Nebraska,” she said. “Being from the Midwest, they need an impressive credit like this on their resume, which helps them get attention and auditions in the future.”

The students having this kind of exposure to professionals is also important.

“That gives them a standard of excellence to aspire to,” she said. “And they learn how to be as vulnerable and flexible an artist as you have to be to do a developmental project where you are receiving changes every day, and you have to incorporate those into your performance. I hope they embrace the joy of this side of the creative process because it is very exciting, but it’s also very hard, running things very quickly and performing them for the writers.”

Tysen said they are aware of that vulnerability as well.

“It’s important when we come back to these kind of situations to build a safe enough space so that these students can see that we are just as vulnerable as they are,” he said. “And that we’re not afraid to show them a bad scene or a bad song or a moment that just doesn’t work. They should feel just as open and brave to give us everything, so we can see it and we can shape it together.”