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An Ibsen classic is now a rock musical
"My name is Peer!" sings the man center stage at the mic stand, backed by guitar, thrashing drums, and backing vocals.
That egocentric battle cry is the essence of Peer Gynt, the fantastical Henrik Ibsen drama on which Ma-Yi Theatre's rock musical Peer Gynt & the Norwegian Hapa Band is based.
Now wait, you may be thinking: Ibsen, the father or realism, has a fantasy play? And now it's got a rock score?
Indeed it does. Peer Gynt is a Norwegian folk tale about a young scoundrel who abandons his mother and bride, encounters trolls and other mysterious beings, and travels abroad to make, and lose, a fortune before returning home as an older man. Along the way, Peer has to consider if he has ever been true to himself. He settles on an answer, but is he right?
"We really wanted to do the play, but do it with rock music," says Michi Barall, the playwright who adapted the work. "The idea of the popular figure of the pop song was really interesting to us."
However, she adds, she wasn't interested in creating traditional musical theatre. The show is more of a concert with scenes of storytelling and existential thought. And while Peer dominates any version of Peer Gynt, the rest of the cast here – which is more multicultural than purely "hapa," or Asian-Pacific Islander – contributes in many ways. When they're not playing characters, for instance, everyone picks up an instrument and joins the band.
Yet for all the music in this production – which is playing through February 11 at the A.R.T./NY Theatres – don't expect to hear the incidental music that Edvard Grieg wrote for Ibsen's original script. The new score only uses a few quotations from the older work, like a snippet of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" that's heard during Peer's encounter with the trolls.
The guitarist who plays that riff is the bearded Paul Lieber, who is the Troll King as well as the bandleader and co-composer. (His fellow composer is Matt Park, who plays Peer.)
Describing the show's musical arc, Lieber says, "It starts as just really rudimentary rock 'n' roll. When the end comes in sight, the music gets more grounded and mature. It's really like the journey of a guy's life."
Initially, Lieber was hired to play guitar and act. "I wasn't supposed to be a composer," he says. But a creative relationship developed. "Matt and I have a special bond, songwriter-wise. We're very opposite people, and we work together beautifully."
Barall sees the songs as the emotional side of Peer's journey, while the text carries the story and insights. "I took my cues from Ibsen," she says, with the Ma-Yi show "in conversation with the original."
Still, her first response was that a man should handle the script, because young Peer is such a cad. "I decided we needed to embrace that," she says. "It felt important to stay with the stuff that was really hard and really unpalatable. This is a person with a really limited moral sense."
Barall had a similar problem with the female characters, like Peer's long-suffering love interest, Solvay. "I wanted her, from a contemporary perspective, to have her own journey, to whatever extent we can.," she says. Likewise, Lieber says he and Park took care with the women's songs "to balance the masculinity of this guy."
But all threads go back to Peer, who lets the company confront some big questions. Barall neatly sums them up when she asks, "What does it mean to have and to be a self?" Almost 200 years after Ibsen, Peer is still trying to find out.
Photos by Hunter Canning. Top photo: Matt Park as Peer Gynt.
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