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Looking Back at "The Jurgens File"

The first musical I ever composed was for Brian Vinero's The Jurgens File". I began work on this project in the Spring of 2012. I never thought this early collaboration would go on to create some of my finest dramatic work and result in (to date) 4 other musical theater projects.

The Jurgens File is based on actual events that occurred in Minnesota. Strangely, at the time we were living in White Bear Lake and the home where much of this story took place was several blocks from where our home was! Even the cemetery where young Dennis Jurgens was buried was on the corner of a street I had driven by hundreds of times in that neighborhood. Brian's original libretto for this musical adaptation focuses on the story of the two primary women in Dennis' life. On the one hand, there was his birth mother, Jerry. She was one of those young troubled kids that ended up in the juvenile justice system while pregnant. Forced to give up her baby, she decides to track him down 18 years later, when he would be an adult, to share her story with him. The other person would greatly influence his life. Lois Jurgens was a rather troubled woman who married a milksop of a husband. They were unable to conceive a child on their own and it is likely that her own mental health issues kept them from adopting one legitimately through regular channels. However, somehow they were able to adopt several and Dennis would end up in Lois' care, such as it is. One Good Friday, the three-year old Dennis would start crying and Lois in her frustration would find a way to "silence" him--for good as it turns out. Brian takes us back and forth in time to unfold this intense story that addresses issues about adoption and abuse, lost love of a child and much more.

Some 50 years now have gone by since that Good Friday and it is this time of year that this show tends to come to my mind. I worked on this project for the better part of a year. I was unsure how to really tackle such an intense story and I wanted to try and create music that would help guide the audience along without revealing what might happen for those unfamiliar with the actual events. It meant that we had to come to know Lois Jurgens without baggage. We had to be able to have some sympathy at first that then also becomes part of our own growing horror at what she becomes and what happens during the course of the show. Her descent into madness becomes something we get to witness and hear along the way. This was created by making sure her music tended to be in asymmetrical meters. It makes her sound out-of-place and adds its own creepiness that, when combined with modern harmonic language, stretches the ear. Even a scene with a psychiatrist is an opportunity to hear this begin to appear. I modeled that particular scene from the crazy doctor of Bartok's Wozzeck.

In contrast, Jerry's, the birth mother, music tends to be a lot more lyrical. Since some of the story is set in the 1970s, it was necessary to give her songs that fit more in that period. She has two big songs that are in the show. One of them, "You Are Loved", can be heard in an excerpt on the audio samples of the site here. I wrote that one afternoon, working on finding the hook that would serve as our primary chorus and finding a bridge that would also lead us away dramatically from that opening reflective music. It is worth noting that when we first showcased this song at the Playwright's Center in Minnesota you could have heard a pin drop! For the finale, I took a page from Marvin Hamlisch for the song "If Only". Here we get a cathartic moment to reflect on what could have been. The effectiveness is also dependent on how the show is staged.

The Jurgens File is an interesting musical-oratorio like hybrid. The various actors form a semi-circle out of which we get the primary characters who come out to sing and participate in the story. In a way, it helps create a connection to the audience as this serves to also open up to help them feel a part of this story. I envisioned the conclusion of the show having the actors move out more into the audience to witness Jerry's reflection. As she sings, they start to hum underneath her lyric. Such a shift in vocal texture would also be easy for our audience to "join in" as the song progresses since the tune itself is quite catchy. This further brings the audience into the story and helps us feel we are in this as a community.

With some 53 musical numbers (!) in this show we managed to create a rather intense evening of theater. The entire show I composed sequentially. That is to say, I really just started from the first page and composed my way to the end trying not to look ahead so that I could be like the audience hearing things for the first time. Specific motives, thematic ideas, and musical gestures combine to help create continuity across the show. We did do a demo though I suspect that this is just too complicated to come across in a couple minutes. I can say that those who have heard excerpts from that demo recording as well as seen the music have found this to be a significant musical achievement. One commentator thought if we ever got it to the stage we could easily be in the running for a Pulitzer. Alas, that has yet to happen (either!) but I think that the concept and themes of this story would resonate with a lot of people and also bring attention to domestic issues that many communities are still facing.

I'm not sure if The Jurgens File will ever get a fair hearing, but when it does, I suspect it will move theatergoers deeply. I know there were days after I finished composing a section that I had to find something lighter to direct my attention to after such an intense set of music.

Of course, if you are reading this and have the authority to consider staging the show, check out the WORKS page and links to more information, or drop me an email.


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