Tales from the O'Neill: Technology and Theatre Combine in Broadcast at the National Music Theater Conference

By Sophia Saifi
July 5, 2013

Playbill.com previews the new musical Broadcast, in development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. 



Technology binds us together in ways that were unheard of a decade ago. As we move ever closer to each other, we are also perpetually drifting further away. Today it's Instagram video, while yesterday it was Vine. Who knows what tomorrow will hold? 

One wonders how it all began? What was the catalyst that pushed society's constant thirst for interconnectivity?

For composer Scott Murphy and writer Nathan Christensen, the answer lies in the advent of radio, and it is the wonders of wireless that eternally shaped our destinies for better or for worse. It is an argument and tale that they have portrayed deeply and with much wit in their multilayered musical Broadcast, which traces the history of radio from its invention in 1901 to its decline in 1950, when the golden age of television began. Through a series of interlinked vignettes, Broadcast explores the lives that were touched by these invisible waves of sound.

Broadcast is one of three musicals in development at Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference (NMTC). Over a period of two weeks, the musical went through as many changes as the subject matter it was dealing with. One day a prelude was added, while another day the entire ending was completely changed. Constant transformations however have been a part of Broadcast's development from its inception in 2004, when Murphy and Christensen were graduate students at NYU.

"Nathan and I were scouring for ideas," Murphy said when explaining the inspiration behind the musical. "I went into a video store and I found this documentary called 'Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio' by Ken Burns. It's when we learnt about the first time that a man courted a woman by wireless and stories like that made us think that this has to be a musical."

After much initial excitement the project was then placed in a drawer, where it stayed for many years until Murphy and Christensen decided to revisit it. What was just a series of 14 separate stories would be fused together to create a more cohesive piece.

"We wanted more of a flow so that people could carry the emotions from one story to another," said Christensen, explaining the process that brought Broadcast to the O'Neill. "We wanted to hear it. So we contacted Joe Calarco (the director) and we did a table reading. Joe said the O'Neill would be a perfect place (to work on it). And it has been."

Scott Murphy
In Broadcast, the audience travels through time with the characters. At one moment a trio of disenchanted telegraph operators are jolted out of their reverie when news of the Titanic sinking arrives, while in another scene a young boy tries to capture a signal with the help of a Quaker Oats box. Couples fight and fall in love, mothers nurture and fade away, and all their stories are somehow touched by the power of radio.

When discussing the relevance of Broadcast to current issues, Paulette Haupt, the artistic director of the conference, said, "technology is changing and the way we communicate today is so different from two years. Broadcast is a microcosm of that macrocosm. I think Scott and Nathan really have a unified vision about what they want to say. Scott's music and Nathan's words just absorb each other."

Thirty characters are played by eight actors and the cast working at the O'Neill consisted of Wesley Taylor, Chris Mccarrel, Jared Zirilli, Tommy McDowell, Jonathan Hadley, Farah Alvin, Theresa Mccarthy and Whitney Bashor.

"Its an ambitious piece," said Farah Alvin. "The only character we follow from beginning to end is radio and they're able to pull that off successfully and that's quite a feat."

Murphy's music takes inspiration from telegraph beeps and signals. When explaining it, he said, "It's the notion of the sound wave and the ocean and the first time the sound came across and the fusion of that. The first sound has a lilt to it. It was the sound of the waves, the waves of the ocean and the waves of the sound, and that little accompaniment figure goes all the way through."

Broadcast is rich in Americana and nostalgia yet pulsating with a present-day relevance, dealing with issues that glare out at us from our computer screens.

Nathan Christensen summed up Broadcast in one phrase, saying, "Technology can be magic and overwhelming and terrifying,"

Single tickets to the Music Theatre Conference performances are now on sale to the general public. They can be purchased by calling (860) 443-1238 or visiting theoneill.org.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.