Encore Theatre presenting Edgar Allan Poe musical, 'Nevermore'
“Nevermore” — a musical loosely based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe, now having its Michigan premiere in a limited engagement at Dexter’s Encore Theatre — has sent star/director Dan Cooney to the dictionary more than once, since the songs use Poe’s own words from a distant age.
“What does ‘bedight’ mean?” said Cooney. “I had to look that one up the other day.” (For those who might be curious, "bedight" means "to decorate.")
And because Cooney originated the role of Poe in “Nevermore,” in 2006, in an acclaimed production at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre near Washington, D.C., his fellow Encore cast members have been looking to him for explanations and guidance.
“It’s like Shakespeare,” said Cooney. “You need to have a basic sense of what the line is saying if you’re going to make any connection with it whatsoever.”
Not that Cooney counted himself a Poe expert before being cast in the role.
“Not at all,” said Cooney. “I’d just had the same experience that everyone else in the world has, where, in eighth grade, I memorized a stanza or two of ‘The Raven.’ But he’s fascinating. And the greatest compliment to the piece was when my mother saw the show and said, ‘I can’t wait to get home and read more about this man.’”
“Nevermore” — with music by Matt Conner, and a book by Grace Barnes (who adapted bits from Poe's poems and stories for the show's lyrics) — is set shortly before the author’s mysterious death, and focuses on his lifetime of fraught relationships with women (a la “Nine”): Poe's mother, who died when he was very young; his childhood friend, who became his first love; his first cousin, who became his child bride; his aunt, who became his surrogate mother; and a prostitute.
Instead of being a straightforward, biographical portrait, “Nevermore” only loosely bases its story on events from Poe’s life, offering instead an atmospherically dark exploration of the man’s dreams and psyche.
And because Cooney was recently impressed with a staged concert of the musical “Coco” — which involved his wife, Jessica GrovÃ© — in New York (“I really felt like I got the whole experience of the show,” said Cooney), he’d initially planned to use a similar format to present “Nevermore” at Encore, as the inaugural production of the theater's "On the Edge" contemporary musical series.
But during the planning stages, Cooney “grew less and less enthusiastic, as I started to feel the disappointment of our audience members at not seeing the show more fully staged.”
So although “Nevermore” is being pulled together in half the time normally dedicated to an Encore show, using only 30 percent of a typical production’s budget, patrons will nonetheless see a minimalist version of a full production.
Of course, the challenge of using writing that’s not originally intended for a musical is re-purposing it to tell a cogent story.
For instance, Cooney noted, “’Fairyland’ is this overwritten, ridiculous piece that’s really Poe making fun of another writer’s story. But set to this gorgeous music, it sounds really flowery and pretty.” So in “Nevermore,” "Fairyland" thus becomes a love song Elmira, Poe’s childhood friend and second wife, sings to Poe.
"And 'The Raven’ is really used at a point in the show where Edgar’s fighting to stay in this reality, but he’s losing it, and going mad,” said Cooney.
When the show was in its earliest development stage, Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer (with whom Cooney had previously worked on “Under the Bridge,” a musical with book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford) asked Cooney to play Poe, without an audition, which Cooney called “unusual”; and after the show premiered, the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and theatergoers, leading to a two week extension, surprised Cooney, too.
“For me, it was just a really cool experience to live and play in this world,” said Cooney. “I was just screaming and yelling and running around, having fun. I was having a blast. But then I wondered, ‘Is this thing actually working? Do they like this?’ And they did.”