By Adam Hetrick
15 May 2013
Arms On Fire has been a passion project for the Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening writers, who began work on the piece in 1999. It spawned their collaboration on the 2001 studio album "Phantom Moon." Much of the musical material on that album was penned for the play, but will be heard in a new Latin context on stage.
Sater and Sheik previously workshopped the play at New York Stage & Film in 2010 under the title Umbrage. Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens, who worked as a dramaturg on Sater's earlier works, inquired about the play's progress, prompting Sater to send him the latest draft. Stevens fell in love with the piece and offered the writers the opportunity for a full production this summer.
"With each time we return to it, we're able to do further excavation into the heart of it," Sater said of Arms On Fire. "It's really been great to work with Byam on it, and for us to pick it up again. I still have such enormous aspirations for the play. It touches on something simple about the human condition."
Stevens will direct Arms On Fire, which will run through July 7. The writers are hopeful for a continued life for the project beyond the Berkshire premiere.
Casting is currently underway for the three-actor piece that incorporates some ten songs by Sheik and Sater, including an unheard tune, "A Boat on the Sea," which Sater revealed to be the first song the two penned together. "We decided to save it and not put it on 'Phantom Moon,'" he said. "All these years the song has been in hiding." The writers may add additional musical material for the Chester production.
While music is intrinsic to the story of Arms On Fire, Sater doesn't characterize it as a play-with-music or a musical. "This is again an attempt to rethink the way music works in theatre," he said. "I'm always looking at what these conventions mean in musical theatre and what music represents in a story. The songs add immeasurably to the play and are vital story components, but it's not at all what you would think of as a musical."
Here's how it's billed: "Ulysses, a factory worker in self-imposed exile, meets Smith, a young singer on the make. As Smith spins out dreams of his future, he also draws out Ulysses' past — memories of his lost love Josephina, a passionate nightclub singer. When Josephina appears, both men must face truths about the present. A deeply moving and funny play about an unlikely friendship."
"In the midst of it there's this sense of the allure and power of the past, and the difficulty of the present. The music represents the power of memory," Sater added.
The Chester Theatre Company's 2013 season also includes Karoline Leach's Tryst, Annie Baker's Body Awareness and Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's An Iliad.
For tickets to the premiere of Arms On Fire, visit chestertheatre.org.