The writer behind Broadway’s simultaneously empowering and heartwarming Waitress has joined forces with the duo who created the anachronistic and angsty contemporary hit Spring Awakening for an impactful new musical about leaving childhood behind.
Playing July 5–7 at Vassar College & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre, a workshop of their Alice By Heart hits the stage of the campus that hosted the earliest versions of Hamilton, Bright Star, and more.
Framed around Alice in Wonderland, the new musical from book writers Jessie Nelson—who also directs—and Steven Sater—who also writes lyrics—and composer Duncan Sheik isn’t just another trip down the rabbit hole. “Our piece is set in the [London] Blitz in World War II,” says Sheik. “People are living in tube stations—refugees—so it’s not a typical Alice in Wonderland story.”
In this bend on the tale, teen Alice escapes the Blitz with her childhood friend Alfred and turns to her cherished book for comfort—finding love and comfort and the resolve to carry on in the bleakest of situations.
“We’re attempting to explore the power of a book and what the story has meant to this girl,” Nelson adds. “How do you return to a book the older you get? Can a book change, or do we change? Can it grow with us or do we have to leave it behind? [It’s about] the power of literature in a really dark time.”
Sheik and Sater seem to hit their sweet spot in the darkest corners: “It’s what Steven Sater is good at—breaking hearts,” Sheik ribs. But it’s true that the two—now three—possess a gift in capturing raw emotion and fashioning it into resonant poetry.
They’ve also established a cast accustomed and willing to dig deep; the three-day presentation stars Tony nominee Alex Brightman (School of Rock), Noah Galvin (Dear Evan Hansen), Molly Gordon, Megan Masako Haley (Wicked), Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez (Miss You Like Hell), J. Quinton Johnson (Hamilton), Lesli Margherita (Matilda The Musical), Heath Saunders (The Great Comet), and Don Stephenson (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Parade) singing Sheik’s “relentlessly contemporary” music—even though the show takes place in 1941.
The Tony-winning composer says playing with technology and electronic sounds have led to a freshness in his work. “There’s a song called ‘Afternoon’ that I think is really one of the favorite pieces of music I’ve ever written,” says Sheik. “It’s a really powerful statement about being in love with somebody and losing that person and dealing with that grief.” But he also assures the musical isn’t one note—musically or emotionally. “There’s also a lot of really fun and outrageous stuff, too.”
As the trio develop the story and its singular sound, the emotions and struggles of the characters steer the ship. “Youth are always youth,” says Nelson, “whether it’s 200 years ago or now. That’s what I love about having contemporary music against these stories. It connects us.”