A musical. Set in a madhouse.
If these two things sound a little antithetical, then clearly you haven’t been tracking the trajectory of Music Theatre of Madison. Over the past seven years, artistic director Meghan Randolph’s company has staked its reputation on staging unusual and off-the-beaten-path productions, including several successful original works.
“Ten Days in a Madhouse,” opening Friday, Aug. 19 in the Wisconsin Union Playhouse, falls squarely into the latter category. It centers on the 19th Century feminist/journalist Nellie Bly. You may know her as the woman who successfully traveled the world in 72 days, but MTM’s musical concerns the New York World series that helped to make her a celebrity: In 1887, Bly went undercover in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, there to expose the horrors and abusive treatment many of the patients were suffering. Bly’s stories resulted in significant reforms and launched a huge wave of similar investigative stories.
And now, more than a century later, the story has launched a musical. For several years, Randolph had been looking for an opportunity to pair composer Jennifer Hedstrom and playwright Karen Saari, who had never met before. When they finally sat down to discuss a collaboration four years ago, they knew they wanted to create a show that featured a strong woman — and both immediately gravitated to Nellie Bly. Saari had already written a script about Bly for a college theater class, which gave them a firm starting point.
“When I first wrote about her, I was astounded that I didn’t know about her,” says Saari. “I thought, ‘How is she not a household name?’ This was a great chance for the work on that project to finally pay off. I wanted to tell this story and get it into the world.”
Typically, MTM’s development process for new works involves several discrete steps that take place over the course of several years — a reading, then a staged workshop, then a full debut. With “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” the pandemic threw a massive wrench into the proceedings. The company was able to duck in a reading in 2019 right before the COVID-19 lockdown hit, but the planned workshop in 2020 was completely washed out. Instead, they put together a podcast performance (available to hear on Spotify), with the actors recording their lines and songs from their home computers.
Randolph admits it wasn’t an ideal process, but it proved useful: Listener feedback helped re-shape the story into what it is now.
“One thing that came up was that we needed to raise the stakes,” says Randolph, noting that the show’s original script was much more reflective of Bly’s matter-of-fact, journalistic style. “We needed to amplify the uncertainty of her not knowing when — or if — she’ll get out.”
Saari and Hedstrom made some changes based on the feedback, adding a song to the show’s soundtrack about Bly’s desperation, some additional dramatic elements, and a little comedy to lighten the mood.
Listeners also said that they wanted to know more about the cruel asylum nurse, Grupe, played by MTM stalwart Liz Griffith, so Saari broadened her backstory.
For Saari, the audience feedback was liberating.
“We were able to let go of some of the historic details, and we felt freer to take some creative liberties,” she says.
Randolph describes the show’s music as haunting, a mix of folk songs that include a vaudeville-esque song and music reminiscent of pop songstress Sara Bareilles.
“It’s definitely not going to be your typical razzmatazz musical,” she quips.
A deep YouTube dive led Saari and Hedstrom to discover that a cache of classic murder ballads was available in the public domain. As a result, one of the characters in the asylum wanders around, singing them.
She’s far from the show’s strangest character. The Blackwell inmates, based on Bly’s notes from the stories she wrote about the asylum, are a collection of women from different walks of life — one suffers from chronic pain, another is an orphan who doesn’t speak English. Another patient, played by Erica Halverson, has found a community among the patients.
That kind of inmate diversity was common in the 1800s, an era where it was common for women to be institutionalized for little or no reason at all.
“Bly acted weird for a night in a boarding house in order to get into Blackwell,” says Randolph. “Once she got inside, she acted like herself.”
MTM shows performed in the Play Circle, the company’s unofficial home base, have typically done more with less, using slides and bare-bones props to conjure their universes. For “Ten Days in Madhouse,” set designer Erin S. Baal has created something far more complicated that features huge windows and multiple leveled platforms, giving director Randolph a full canvas with which to play. The floor, meanwhile, is painted with abstract designs.
Just don’t let the set and subject matter make you think “Ten Days in a Madhouse” is only a dark, depressing ride.
“It actually is a hopeful show,” says Randolph. “The idea that one person can make a difference in the world is a powerful one.”
“Ten Days in a Madhouse” runs through August 27.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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