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The Bengsons share their musical memoir at New York Theatre Workshop
Marriage can be difficult, and spouses who want to parse the ups and downs of their romance sound destined for a therapist's couch, not the stage. But singer-songwriters Shaun and Abigail Bengson, who lead the quirky indie folk-rock group the Bengsons, aren't conventional, and neither is the show about their relationship: Hundred Days.
The Bengsons have been developing this musical memoir throughout much of their 10-year marriage, and the piece touches on many intimate aspects of their lives, including how they fell in love, symbol-laden dreams, and the looming shadow of mortality. Following a brief but well-received run at the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival in January, Hundred Days is now playing at New York Theatre Workshop through New Year's Eve.
"The challenge is you don't get to go home from work," says Shaun about their creative partnership. "We had to develop language and tools to be able to just be husband and wife and close the office."
"It really helps to be clear when you need a husband and when you need a collaborator," Abigail adds. "A collaborator says, 'That song needs to be better,' and a husband says, 'That's a beautiful song.' Both are important things to say."
The idea for the show came early in their courtship -- they wed just three weeks after meeting -- when Abigail was overcome by the dread that Shaun might die, while he fretted she might abandon him. "It's about a young couple and the thought of loss," says Shaun. "It started as a set of songs and it was very personal, talking about our own lives. It was hard for us at first to get over the artistic fear of why anyone should care about this young, white couple worrying about themselves. It's been a long path to now. The show is about the larger battle between love and fear, and the ease with which fear can shut us down."
As the show evolved, they picked up two key collaborators: co-writer Sarah Gancher and Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman, who helped shape the material, which is mostly true to life. "There were definitely moments where we'd go, 'Do people really need to know that?'" recalls Shaun. "We talked about how do we protect ourselves and our family, and whether some things are too personal to reveal. But the basic timeline is true and the emotional landscape is 100 percent true."
The Bengsons will continue exploring their relationship in their next show, The Lucky Ones, which premieres at the Connelly Theater in spring 2018. "It's sort of a prequel and sequel to Hundred Days," says Shaun, noting that it touches on their separate pasts, such as when a storm destroyed Abigail's childhood home, and their shared present. "It includes a fictionalized version of what Abigail's family went through and the anxiety of having kids."
The Bengsons welcomed their first child, Louis, in 2016, and Abigail says, "It changed the writing process profoundly. Having Louis was very uncomfortable in many ways but it was so full of love, too, and that combination is an amazing place to make art from. It's deepened our emotional sphere."
It's also forced them to adjust their lifestyle. "With a young child, you have to be more efficient and faster and learn how to do the work without burning yourself out," Abigail says. "You have to come home and be a person and be present and loving. You can't go get drunk or watch TV for 20 hours. You've got to show up in your life. And that's the great gift Louis has given us. But along with the joy of loving a child, you also realize the precariousness of life. The stakes get really, really high."
"And that means all new anxieties," adds Shaun laughing, knowing it's just more creative fodder.
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Top image: Abigail and Shaun Bengson in Hundred Days. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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