THE CIRCUS IN WINTER: A New Musical on a Unique Journey

by Patrick Maley
he cast of Ball State University's production of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER. Photo credit: Ball State University Photo Services.

he cast of Ball State University’s production of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER. Photo credit: Ball State University Photo Services.

In the post-PRODUCERS, post-Disney world of musical theater, newly staged musicals often seem only to be safe remakes of well well-worn classics with solid vehicles for star power, or adaptations of beloved films sure to attract a broad crowd of movie lovers to the theater. The common denominator is the lack of risk: musicals are expensive to mount, and producers often find it difficult to resist the siren song of a safe bet.

But the catalogue of American musicals is far broader than the dozen or so holding down residence on Broadway marquees, and often the development of new musicals travels a much more winding path than that from the movie house to the playhouse. Instead, they are created by emerging artists with an excitement for the creative process and the hope for a wider audience.

Every year a handful of these organic musicals arrive in New York at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Annual Festival of New Musicals for a short staged reading and showcase in the hopes of support, funding, and most of all a path down which they may continue the journey of their creative process.

One such show at this year’s festival, THE CIRCUS IN WINTER, is on a most unique journey.

Its creation began not in a movie theater or as a time-tested show, but in an undergraduate classroom at Ball State University in Muncie Indiana where fourteen students and one theater professor spent a semester together writing a musical.

The Ball State course took place in the spring of 2010, and then the show received a full-scale production at the university in fall 2011. From there, THE CIRCUS IN WINTER went on to the 2012 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington D.C., where it won many distinctions, including “Outstanding Production of a New Work,” “Outstanding Director of a New Work,” and “Outstanding Scenic Design,” before being selected as one of only eight musicals for inclusion in the NAMT festival.

From the Indiana classroom to New York City’s theater district, THE CIRCUS IN WINTER has traveled a great distance, growing and developing into a mature musical along the way, and now, with an ambitious schedule of regional productions and the hopes of arriving back on Broadway in a few years, it stands at the ready for immersion in the world of professional theater.

The project’s inspiration and title are taken from a 2004 novel of connected short stories by Cathy Day, a native of Peru, Indiana, once the winter home of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Day’s book is a compassionate and often melancholy examination of the lives and tensions of circus people when they step out of the spotlight and into their daily existence.  Its roots are in her family history, childhood, and emergence as a writer.

In its current form, then, THE CIRCUS IN WINTER musical is built on a genealogy stretching back more than a hundred years, and moving through a winding, complex, and constantly evolving creative process.

The current incarnation presented at this year’s NAMT Festival for New Musicals—where it featured Sutton Foster in a lead role—is a rootsy musical awash in heartland angst and charm. Composer Ben Clark has written a collection of dramatic Americana show tunes and a funky bluegrass score (think: Punch Brothers perform Sondheim), and Beth Turcotte has taken the lead on a script that follows the transition of Wallace Porter from livery stable proprietor to circus man by taking us inside the often-seedy confines of circus life as lust, betrayal, and tragedy underwrite the lives of those who entertain and amaze under the big top.

Although THE CIRCUS IN WINTER’s full-scale version features a life-sized elephant puppet, it is ultimately a musical about the humanity of performers, the heart of ringleaders and sideshow attractions, and the family bonds uniting a community of misfits.

Beth Turcotte, Ben Clark, and Cathy Day spoke to STAGE Magazine about the musical and its unique creative process.

STAGE: Beth, can you talk a little bit about your goals for the origins of this project? What were you hoping to achieve when you proposed the course at Ball State, and has the project met or exceeded those expectations?

BETH: Every project I have ever started, I finish with a comma, not a period.  Although I had zero idea that CIRCUS would move into the professional arena with the speed and support it has received following the NAMT festival, I did plan on furthering the show from the classroom to the University stage in hopes of the American College Theatre Festival/Kennedy Center.  I had also entered CIRCUS in NAMT after the success of the production at the Kennedy Center/ACTF awards.  Nothing ventured nothing gained.

STAGE: This musical has been through a number of drafts, each getting further and further away from the project’s initial fairly literal adaptation of Cathy’s book, correct? Nonetheless, it seems like the two projects still share not simply a story and characters, but a fascination with the humanity of this overlooked pocket of people tucked away in an unexplored corner of society. Can you talk a little bit about how the musical retains the heart of the book while moving into a much different genre? Especially considering musical theater’s needs for linearity and clear narrative arc, elements which the book actively destabilizes.

CATHY: There’s a house in my book that shows up in multiple stories which take place from the 1890’s to the 1950’s, and the first draft of the musical used that house as the set and included all those stories and characters. I don’t know a lot about theater, but I knew that draft, while being faithful to the book, wasn’t a satisfying story because you weren’t with any of the characters long enough. I told the group to do whatever they needed to do in order to make a great musical, even if that meant straying from the book I’d written. To their credit, they threw out 2/3 of what they’d written and decided to focus on just a portion of the book, the first four or five stories.

BEN: The heart of the book is still retained in the musical because the Circus is a place where people with nowhere to go can escape. The bigger idea is essentially that from a human level, acceptance is everything. We all need to be accepted by someone to feel intimately fulfilled. The circus is a place for that, and I think people like the musical because they feel a part of that. The book makes you feel that, I hope the show does too.

BETH: The heart of the book for the class and me was the reluctant hero, Wallace Porter, facing a Job-like life but ultimately stepping up to the plate.  We all need champions in our lives, and Wallace was one for us in Cathy’s book.  As it turned out, almost all of the students involved with the class are Hoosiers.  The fact that Cathy and her novel were homebred really is what brought us to CIRCUS in the first place.

STAGE: Cathy, starting perhaps most in earnest as your MFA thesis, THE CIRCUS IN WINTER has been a part of your life for a long time, but the circus and circus people are ingrained in you and your prehistory. Is it accurate to say that these characters are less creative inventions than they are adaptations and amalgams of people in your life and your history? If so, can you describe the experience of watching characters so familiar to you move beyond your own work and beyond your creative control?

CATHY: It’s startling when the story in your head takes physical form. It’s sort of like being able to step inside your own imagination. No, that’s not it. It’s like watching a bunch of people look at your imagination. Writing for the stage is so much different from writing for screen or for the page, because the experience is so much more visceral and immediate—and I think I finally understand the attraction of live theater.

You asked about the characters. Honestly, I’m kind of a control freak, and I thought it would be hard not to step in and say, “Wallace Porter wouldn’t do that,” and the like, but that really didn’t happen. The way they interpreted my characters always struck me as something entirely separate from me, from what I’d done. In my book, Pearly is the Fat Lady, the mother of Gordon, a boy who tends elephants, but in the musical, she’s an entirely different kind of side show freak (a one-eyed Cyclops Girl) and she tends the elephants. I couldn’t care less that she isn’t the same character I wrote.

STAGE: Ben, how does the music for THE CIRCUS IN WINTER compare to the sound and style of your other projects? Would you say that this project is part of your cohesive identity as an artist, or is it something fundamentally different from the main direction of your work? As I listened to the music at NAMT, it seemed to me that a unifying theme was an angst and eagerness from normally quiet and reserved people to be heard, as though the songs were being sung by the “everyday people” aspect of these characters rather than the “circus people” aspect of them. Can you talk a little bit about the songwriting process and what your goals were in writing these songs, and how their style advances those goals?

BEN: I’ve had people come up and see big resemblances in the show and my stuff. I write the way I do, but CIRCUS opens up some new doors in that I don’t have to be limited to my own abilities or instrument. Writing for women is awesome, writing for other people also can inform you about something you never knew you felt as a person. That’s a pretty awesome experience, writing that way.

I try to keep my songwriting ideas simple at their core; it needs to be understandable first and foremost. I try to make sure every character has thematic elements. But the rhythm of the lyric has to sound conversational. It has to be a character speaking through tone and melody; those are the two elements that require decision making. But I try to keep my rhythm in verses in patterns of speech: people just hear it more clearly.

Another goal I had was meshing pop and musical theatre in a traditional way. Like, for instance, taking the rock n roll, Mumford and Sons/Dave Matthews sound, and organizing it the same way Rogers and Hammerstein put together Oklahoma.

STAGE: The crafting of this musical seems to have been a largely collaborative process among students, professors, and artists. Can you talk a little bit about the process itself? Has there been any particular difficulty with navigating the tension between adaptation, collaboration, and the ultimate goal of a cohesive product?

BETH: The classroom project is immersive learning at its best.  My goal as an educator is/was to guide, encourage, support, challenge, and maintain the student’s forward motion.

CATHY: I heard the first read-through of the script in January 2010 and saw the first concert reading in April 2010. That summer, they invited me to read a draft and I sat down with Beth and Ben and one of the students and gave them some circus jargon and some plot ideas, some of which they used and some of which they didn’t. I also helped Beth and Ben this past summer when we had to come up with a 45-minute version for NAMT. I had a few concerns early on about associating the “African-ness” of the Gordon/Pearly character with his/her ability to tame an elephant, and they listened to those concerns. But honestly, I’ve had very little to do with the evolution of the project. One of the reasons I was willing to let them adapt the book was that it made me really happy to think that it would help the next generation of Indiana artists find their way in the world.

BEN: We’ve been very fortunate to have people work and continue to work on this show from the idea that this show came from humble beginnings, but we’ve never been afraid to be proud of what we have. We decided a while back that after our semester, we believed in our work enough to commit to moving forward and taking a journey with it. But we’re still simple Hoosiers, so we’ve tried to let everybody that’s ‘bigger’ than us know that we’re up for criticism, just be honest and good spirited when we work on the project we care so much about. We haven’t run into anyone yet who doesn’t follow those rules, so the collaborative journey of this show has been more enlightening than anything else.

STAGE: Cathy and Beth, you are both active artists in your respective fields and fulltime college professors. Ben, you are an active singer/songwriter who worked on this project as a student. This project and its results seem to straddle that same line between art and education. Has this musical “graduated” from a student project to a professional product, or does it rather trouble that distinction? In what aspect of the musical do you see the clearest thread from the project’s origins to its current form?

CATHY: I definitely think this project troubles the idea that college students “aren’t ready” to take on professional projects. The typical approach to professionalizing students is to bring in a bunch of experts and let the students “learn from the greats,” whereas this project emerged at school that believes in a kind of experiential learning they’ve dubbed “immersive.”

BEN: It has certainly graduated. We have always been made aware that it is a unique piece with great potential, and through the rewrites I think we’ve been closing the gap on achieving that potential.

The structure of the story is the biggest landmark of our original work. All of the original students worked to figure out how we would navigate our chosen chapters from the novel, and that has remained the road of Wallace Porters life within the musical. There have been tweaks, but not many.

STAGE: THE CIRCUS IN WINTER musical seems to me so fundamentally and fascinatingly different than most musicals not simply because of its unique story and music, but because of the process of its creation. But at a full-scale professional production, few of the audience may have any knowledge of the show’s long and winding history. Are there aspects of the show that bear the signs of its genealogy? Does a full-scale production of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER risk losing some of the show’s charm by shedding it backstory?

CATHY: Once there was a real “Lima, Indiana” and a real “Great Porter Circus,” and that charming backstory was partially shed in my novel, and it was shed even further in the musical. That’s what happens. Old things disappear. New things are made. People forget. It’s inevitable. But some people, like me, like Beth and Ben, find these lost things and bring them to life. I’m glad that my book captures a time and a place that no longer exists, and I’m happy that the musical increases the likelihood that Peru, Indiana and its history will, in some respects, live forever.

BEN: I’ve never been really concerned with shredding our back story. I love the show because there are so many people I had in mind as Jennie Dixianna before I could have imagined someone like Sutton doing it, because that’s ridiculous. I’d never write for Sutton when I was 20, when I wrote for the girl eating lunch in the next room who was going to learn it twenty minutes later, because she was the soprano in the group. I love those stories, that’s where the genealogy of the show never dies.

STAGE: The theater is in many ways like the circus, and theater people are in many ways like circus people. The circus and the theater are both social events, where a community comes together to watch and be entertained by another community, that of the performers, who do their best to conceal their true selves in service of the show. Maybe, in the end, the sort of insight into the humanity of marginalized but cohesive community offered by Cathy’s book was destined for the theater. Is there an affinity between these characters and the theater? Is there anything in particular about the circus community that lends itself to the carnivalesque ritual of the theater?

CATHY: I absolutely believe that the reason this group of people was able to so effectively interpret my book is because they identified with the characters—as Midwesterners, as aspiring performers, as people who are “different” from the Indiana norm in one way or another, meaning not straight, not white, not conservative, not anti-intellectual, or not meek and self-effacing. There’s a line at the end of the book that says there are two kinds of people in this world, and the kind who stay are called town people and the kind who leave are called circus people.

I’m Facebook friends with almost every kid who’s been in involved in this project, and most of them have left Indiana to pursue their dreams. If being a part of this project helped them achieve what I call “escape velocity,” well, then that makes me pretty happy. But I also hope they’ll return to Indiana at some point in their lives and bring what they learned to the next generation. I know this sounds incredibly sentimental, but I don’t really care.

BEN: The circus and the theater do have similarities. I view each kind of entertainer as a person who embraces the escapism of the entire thing. They are people who abandon their own lives to take over someone else’s for a small time, and actors and circus performers require that I think. I don’t want to say they are tortured souls, but the ones you can’t get enough of in either field seem to have that trait.

STAGE: Any update on the future of the show after NAMT?

BEN: We’re looking to take the show to 4-5 regional theaters while we gain investors to seek out a Broadway run.

BETH: We start our professional life on December 26 continuing on a two year journey in hopes to the NYC stage in 2015/16.  And although CIRCUS is growing professional roots, the project is supplying the fodder for our students work with other projects either connected with this show or rippled from the progress of the show.

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