Good and bad angels. Pacts with the devil. Threat of eternal damnation. Really, what’s more rock ‘n’ roll than that?
“We have seen a lot of ‘sell-your-soul-for-rock-n-roll’ stories,” Christopher Marino muses of his and composer Adrian Varnam’s “rock concert” take on Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus.” The show opens tomorrow night at UNCW, where Marino works in the theatre department. It follows the story of Faustus, who gets bored with his studies in medicine, law, logic and theology—ya know, Common Core stuff—and decides magic (or the practice of necromancy) is more fun.
“We created an echo of that kind of story—merged with Marlowe’s play. Marlowe was himself a bigger-than-life personality who lived fast and died young. It felt right for this text.”
Presented by UNCW’s Department of Theatre, “Dr. Faustus” will run Feb. 15-18 and 22-25, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on the Mainstage Theatre in UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building.
“Dr. Faustus”—or “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus”—is an Elizabethan tragedy more than four centuries old. Marino and Varnam are old pros at giving classic tales new life and relevance for modern audiences, a la last year’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or 2016’s “Measure for Measure.”
Marino and Varnam’s production features more than two dozen original songs with lyrics composed specifically for their cast’s voices, including Tommy Goodwin as Dr. Faustus and Sarah Kilgore as Mephistophilis. The production consists of a “dark yet melodic soundscape,” according to Marino, with another dozen or so instrumental sketches, reprises and sounds underscoring scenes. To put it lightly, “Dr. Faustus” has musical depth.
“While many songs are brief, they all are independent and stand alone,” Varnam details, “ranging from longing ballads, to pop and rock, to rage-induced scream. I don’t know that you can say it’s a specific type of music, other than maybe a continuous thread of what I think of as mostly dark, melody-driven rock with strings.”
encore talked to Marino and Varnam to get a better idea of what audience’s can expect to see from their rockin’ Faustus rendition.
encore (e): What drew you to tackle “Dr. Faustus” in the first place?
Christopher Marino (CM): Many years ago, I thought “Faustus” could lend itself to a rock fable, and now I am able to finally test it out. You can clearly see the influence on Shakespeare in Marlowe’s text; there are echoes of Marlowe all throughout Shakespeare’s plays.
e: Let’s start with the music: More than two dozen or so original songs sounds a bit ambitious, especially written specifically for the performers. Can you explain how that worked?
Christopher Marino (CM): The songs were indeed written for each of the actors to suit their individual range. For example, the Good and Evil Angels individually have great voices, but we realized having them sing in harmony in one of the songs could be beautiful. This is a situation where Adrian wrote a great song, and as it usually is the case with our collaborations, I make the suggestion and he runs with it. I suggested the harmony section, and I think it works really well. Adrian is such a great collaborator in the sense that he allows everything and values input.
Adrian Varnam (AV): “Dr. Faustus” isn’t a traditional musical in the sense that a composer writes and arranges the pieces and passes them along to a creative team and cast to be performed however he or she intended. We knew going into this that, while we have theatre majors involved, they aren’t necessarily musical theatre majors, so for this to work we needed to know where each actor would fit and the levels of their vocal abilities.
Chris and I have been working on ideas for this production since last summer, but it didn’t make much sense to compose the show until we cast it and knew how each role would be filled. For example, in this production, the demon Mephistopheles is cast as female. Any ideas before—of it being a brooding baritone—are out the window when the decision was made to have Sarah Kilgore play the role. So, yes, in essence every song was molded and influenced by each actor specifically.
The process really began the night Chris made final decisions on the roles, after we had an opportunity to hear [the cast] sing and see them act during auditions. Then I spent time observing the actors in early rehearsals, getting a sense of their personalities and voices, and I began putting my sketches together and working with each actor individually to see if the ideas I had matched their vocal ranges and abilities.
e: Chris, you said the addition of even more original songs was one of many updates since first announcing this production. Does this mean some of these songs just came to be by accident?
CM: We knew there would be songs, very much in the “play with music” mode. Certain speeches lent themselves to songs and once Adrian got a feel for converting blank verse into music, we just kept adding and refining. If you asked me a few weeks ago how many songs we were going to have, I would have said maybe eight or 10, now we are way north of 20.
e: Tell us more about a couple of songs audiences get to hear, their significance to the show and who performs them.
CM: Each of the seven deadly sins get some form of song, and Lucifer has a wonderful and surprising song [composed] of text from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” This is the most theatrical section of the play, and I think it is grotesque and funny in an unique way.
AV: While Faustus and Mephistopheles each have their own rock songs at different times, my favorite of theirs may be “I, Who Saw the Face of God,” a sweeter duet that highlights the voices of the actors while revealing longing in both their characters. Helen of Troy makes an appearance with her song “Come Live with Me and Be My Love,” which feels to me to be in the universe of Mazzy Star-meets-the-Velvet Underground. And I don’t want to tip our hand, but there may or may not be a gospel song about hell, which could be as ridiculous as it sounds.
e: What were the challenges of converting text into songs and scenes unique to your production? It’s trial and error, but what in this process clearly didn’t work and what worked quite well without question?
CM: I use sources from all sorts of texts—from Shakespeare to Milton, we even utilize text from a KKK manual from 1868. The challenge is finding something that gives the audience close to the same experience that the Elizabethan audiences would have had. There is a scene where Faustus plays tricks on the pope and a bunch [of] cardinals. Attacking Catholicism and the pope does not have the significance it once had. So I felt we needed to reformat that scene. I won’t give it a away, but we have focused on attacking on a few groups that people universally revile.
AV: Marlowe didn’t write “Faustus” in verse, so trying to fit the text into song structures was particularly challenging. Thankfully, Chris allowed me to play around with the text when we needed to mold certain passages into what we think of as song (i.e., repeating certain lines to create a traditional chorus, or cutting certain words or unnecessary lines to preserve the beat of the phrase, etc.). Had I not had that freedom I don’t know if I could’ve made a lot of it work.
In terms of what did and didn’t work, I think because Chris and I front-loaded so much of the work in the planning stage, when it came to the actual composition, everything went very smoothly. Chris is a great director who understands music and can articulate what he wants in terms of sound very well, so I had a good blueprint when I sat down to write. And the cast (and band) did such an amazing job learning this music, in terms of preparation, responsiveness, and rehearsing, that really once I was able to get the music out on paper, molding it into a finished product was the fun part.
e: Tell readers more about the lead performances and how their renditions remain true to original characters yet unique to this production?
CM: I really encourage students to find their own way into the roles. So, this is very much their sensibility with roles while following the rules set out in the text from Marlowe.
e: Is there anything either of you would like to add about “Dr. Faustus,” the songs or opening this week?
CM: I think the work Adrian has done on this is stellar, and I am happy to share this production with Wilmington audiences.