Ten Years Later--The Jurgens File
Shortly after the premiere of my chamber orchestra work, Convergence, I received an email from a playwright wondering if I'd be interested in collaborating on a musical theater piece. He warned me that the subject matter was pretty intense but he had been looking at some of my work online and thought I might be a composer to help realize this unusual story. The show to be was The Jurgens File, and it would be the first of five (to date) projects with Brian Vinero.
When Brian first asked me to consider this, he explained that the story was drawn from real life events. It revolved around Louis Jurgens, a woman who wanted to be a mother, but whose mental capacity was, let's say, a little unpredictable. It also followed a young woman who was in the juvenile justice system where she had given birth to a little boy, Dennis. He would end up being adopted by Louis and her husband and one Good Friday was drowned--I'll let you guess how or by whom. At any rate, the story revolved around these two women sort of in contrast to each other.
Usually, one prepares for a project by reading the script you are sent. However, I was concerned that if I was to help the audience be pulled into the story, I couldn't reveal too soon that Louis was perhaps mad, or crazy. That would come with the interactions and the setting of her texts. So, after reading a bit about the historical story. I decided to begin setting the music by literally starting at the beginning of the show and working my way through. I felt that this way, I would be like that first audience member coming across this story in the theater. I know, that might have been a bit naive, but the story was so important I did not want to compromise it in any way.
The Jurgens File is told in a variety of present day and flashback scenes from its various characters as the story is revealed. One unique aspect of the show is that it was envisioned as a sort of staged oratorio. The various actors could be arranged in a semicircle around the stage, coming out to become that character and move the story forward. This would influence my conception of the finale as well. There are some 53 (!) numbers in this show which essentially is entirely scored by music even within some dialogue segments. It opens with a chorale that sets the stage for its Minnesota locale. We move to a number that then also introduces a motif for Dennis that will recur throughout the show as a reminder and connective tissue.
Other aspects include a sort of macabre Andrews Sisters chorus that represents the neighbor women commenting on Louis and some of the scenes. They are written in close harmony to also indicate the timeframe of the 1940s a bit. Because things are so intricately linked, it makes it difficult to pull a single song from the show, but two do stand out. The first of these is a beautiful ballad, "You Are Loved" which has Dennis' mother thinking and reflecting about the child she had to give up for adoption. The other is the finale song, "If Only". This song references the period with a sort of Marvin Hamlisch-like musical setting that slowly grows as the song continues. As things are summed up, the chorus begins to slowly hum the melody. I was thinking that our cast would be moving to create a sort of community circle that would include the audience. By humming the melody while the song unfolds, the audience would also get a sense of being part of that community--they might even begin to hum along.
There were also some quite intense scenes that helped indicate the descent into madness of Louis as well. To accomplish this, her music is often set in asymmetrical patterns. It is hard to pin her down as she randomly seems to address different things in her life or in the moment. Those were rather interesting to create and will require an accomplished actress to make work. Among the hardest music to write were the abuse scenes that are often implied in the script, save for the day Dennis dies. A real life flood is occurring while Dennis becomes "difficult" for Louis and she (allegedly) throws him down the stairs and then holds his head under the water in the kitchen sink. For this scene, a slow, repeated ascending motive is used and the violent aspects are then punched out against this rising tide of real water and anger. I think it is among the most difficult sequences of music I had to write and I needed a day or two to recover from the emotional exhaustion of realizing a scene like this.
We did manage to get a few things recorded for a demo, but really a demo cannot truly do justice to the overwhelming scope and arching dramatic development of the show. At least two songs are pretty good and when we offered "You Are Loved" at a showcase of pieces it left the audience spellbound and deeply moved. Some who have seen the score and script feel it is one of those pieces that would certainly be worthy of higher accolades, but most likely it will also sit for a discovery someday. My first foray into musical theater was a sort of baptism by fire, but it was also life-giving by having such an immediate interactive collaborator to send feedback as work on it progressed. It must have been okay since we have gone on to do 4 other quite different shows since!
After finishing the piano-vocal edition, I then spent the next year orchestrating for a small pit orchestra. That work was completed a decade ago this week!