Harris Burdick Sings

Harris Burdick Sings William Finn and Barrington Stage's musicals lab nurture The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
William Finn
William Finn

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Put the Barrington Stage Company and William Finn together, and the result is an eight-letter word: m-u-s-i-c-a-l-s.

Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's Tony-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was workshopped, developed and premiered there in 2004 — and Barrington is presenting it again this month on its stage in Pittsfield, MA.

In addition, two years ago Barrington created a Musical Theatre Lab for new work — with Finn in charge. "After I did Spelling Bee," Finn says, "Julie Boyd, Barrington's artistic director, said, 'I owe you something; what can I do?' I said I would love to be able to introduce some of my very talented students in the graduate musical theatre writing program at NYU to the world. I don't think producers are cultivating writers."

So far, the Lab's résumé includes a seven-letter word: s-u-c-c-e-s-s. A musical presented in 2006 — The Burnt Part Boys, with music and lyrics by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, two of Finn's former students — is set to move to Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. This year six musicals are being presented by the Lab, in various stages of development. And recent weeks brought to the Barrington boards a full production of Miller and Tysen's new musical, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which workshopped at the Lab last year. (Performances continue to July 5.) Tysen, 31, a native of Salina, KS, says the Lab is the best thing that could happen to a young writer. "We've spent so many years in development with so many shows, in readings and workshops in rehearsal studios, without an opportunity to see the shows up on their feet. Here you can walk into the theatre and see lights, costumes, sets — elements you can forget about."

Miller, 30, of Silver Spring, MD — the two met at NYU — agrees. "The Lab gives us a chance to see and hear the show in front of an audience," he says, "to acknowledge their response — whether it's good or bad — to concentrate on the work and fix it."

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which has a libretto by Joe Calarco, is based on the popular book by Chris Van Allsburg (who created "Jumanji," "The Polar Express") that consists entirely of 14 mysterious, unconnected, black-and-white illustrations. Each has a title and a caption — and readers are invited to use their imaginations to create a story about each.

The musical's authors have used their imaginations to create one story connecting all 14. They have also gone to Van Allsburg with their creation, Tysen says, "and he's on board. Our story revolves around a missing child in a small community, and how the community ends up reacting to that missing child."

What is Finn's role — how does he advise, how do Tysen and Miller react? "Both Nathan and I definitely listen," Miller says. "We don't always agree, but we've gotten to the point where we're comfortable enough that we can argue. We can all be heard, and he doesn't push us in a direction we don't want to go. He's always very supportive and loving. And when you're trying to find your voice, it's great to listen to him."

"He's right most of the time," Miller says. "But if we disagree, we say we disagree, and we agree to disagree."

Finn's take is somewhat different. "I tell them what to do to make it better," he says. "Then they usually roll their eyes and choose not to listen. I say, 'O.K., do what you want.' And then they always end up doing what I said."