Renewable Energy is coming to the New York Musical Festival–in the form of the new musical Black Hole Wedding. In this satire of energy politics, a corrupt oil baron battles a shy geek and his fiancé in the face of a large and powerful black hole. I talked to writers Katherine Brann Fredricks (words) and Paul E. Nelson (music) about musicalizing a black hole, researching and writing about a chicken bone fuel generator and an electronic sniffer, and why you shouldn’t call this a sci-fi musical.
Shoshana Greenberg: Where did this idea come from?
Katherine Fredricks: Paul wanted to do an office musical, something set in an office. He mentioned Dilbert, and I said, ‘Yeah, but we don’t have the rights to that.’ And so we were talking, and he said something about a black hole trash compactor, and I just fell over laughing. And so we were like, we have no idea what the show is, we have no clue, but yes, we’re writing something about a black hole trash compactor.
Paul Nelson: My original idea, because I’ve started a couple of companies, was to have the world’s worst start-up company make a black hole trash compactor, and because the company’s so dysfunctional they threaten the entire earth. That was the genesis of the idea. It ended up going in a much more political direction, appropriately, I think. It was an interesting blend of both of our ideas.
SG: How did you establish the tone of the piece?
KF: Early on, Paul sent me a lot of music to establish what the world sounds like. From my side, I was looking at different material to adapt because if you have a solid story to adapt from it makes life go much more easily. Three things were underlying material for the show. For the basic storyline, it was adapted from the Mahabharata, which is this four thousand-year-old Hindu epic story. For song placement and the structure of the songs, and the fact that it’s about work as opposed to, you know, most musicals are primarily love stories–this is a story that is primarily a work story with a love subplot–for that, we went to Gilbert and Sullivan and we looked at the structure of Pirates of Penzance. And then as our villain started being someone in the oil industry, I went back and read several source materials about John D. Rockerfeller. This is by no means biographical, but a lot of the behavior that our villain engages in is stuff that Standard Oil did.
PN: We talked a lot about the tone of the show at the very beginning. We wanted to do something wacky because we knew that the black hole was already going to be an unrealistic situation. Pirates of Penzance was the level of humor we wanted. And then, there’s the office musical, so there’s a little of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and that kind of style.
SG: What’s been fun about working on a sci-fi piece?
PN: First, we’d object to calling it a sci-fi piece. I think we would call it a science piece.
KF: With the exception of our black hole compactor all the other inventions in the show do actually exist in the world. They may not be practical, you can’t go to Target and buy one, but our chicken bone fuel generator and our burning sea water, things like this really do exist in the world. In fact, the Navy is now experimenting with burning sea water.
PN: It’s fun for me because I work in an office and I do a lot of nerdy stuff. There’s a list of hacker words and a list of other nerdy words that I sent to Katherine.
KF: He sent me a whole dictionary of office slang. I’ve never been a corporate person.
PN: Things like ergonomic keyboards, which you rhymed.
KF: One of my favorites was, for an impossible situation somebody wants me to put “socks on an octopus.”
PN: That’s a hacker expression.
KF: We’re both fairly analytical people but we managed to hit it off in a zany, fun vein where we could just be silly with each other. It’s helped the show a lot because there is a lot of silly stuff in the show.
SG: Any challenges dealing with the science element?
PN: Well, we have a black hole on stage. The real challenge has been to try to come up with a mechanism for implementing a black hole that’s fun and communicates to the audience what’s happening, not necessarily realistic but that the director feels we can do in the short time frame of NYMF.
KF: We have one day for tech, and also our storage space is very limited. We have, like, 4’ by 4’ by 8’ tall storage space for all our props, all our costumes, and all our sets. We need a black hole that can threaten to swallow the world stored in that space.
PN: Two black holes. And you would think that a black hole could store an infinite amount of stuff, so we’d be okay! Just reach into it!
KF: The problem is just getting the stuff out of the black hole!
PN: Okay there is sort of a flaw in that plan.
SG: What do you consider when writing music for a science piece? Are there any tropes you want to use or avoid?
PN: Science is universal. I think you can have sciency music anywhere. We wanted this to be a pop/rock show. The music is very musical theater–I think it’s halfway between musical theater and pop/rock. I do have a lot more synthesizer effects than you’d have in a typical show. Music and science go very well together. The black hole sound is one of the most fun things I’ve done musically. There’s a huge song in the middle we call the “Clock Song” because the character has to construct a black hole in a week, so there’s a clock going on in the background. At some point he’s finally able to turn the black hole on, and the sound is like a combination of angel pipes, tam tam, some incredibly low brass, and something that’s like, [Paul makes a WAHHH sound]. It’s the most beautiful sound, but it’s the combination of four or five different things on the synthesizer. The black hole really needs to ground the show. When he turns it on, we want the audience to feel like we’re going to destroy the earth.
SG: Do you have science backgrounds?
PN: I have a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Computer Science. I’ve been working as a computer programmer and writing computer programs since I was 14.
KF: My background in science is not a degree I’ve just lived in the forest a lot, so I’m very familiar with natural systems and wildlife and biological systems.
SG: What was the research process for this show like?
KF: We looked around for real inventions that we thought were wildly amusing, and so we have a chicken bone fuel generator and an electronic sniffer whose polite name is the airborne impurity detector, and burning seawater.
PN: Things that don’t seem to be real but really are.
KF: As much fun as we had with the science of it, our show is a satire of energy politics, so it’s about the human interactions. The inventions are there along the way, but they’re not the main focus of the show.
PN: Except for the black hole.
SG: Which part of the show you are most excited for audiences to experience?
KF: This show has a lot of action, it has a lot of dance, it has comic chase sequences. It’s a very physical production, and a lot of the comedy of the show is physical comedy, so along with the music, which I love, the dance and the physicality of the show really excites me.
PN: The love. It’s gotta be the love. I think it’s so well earned. We have three love songs–one from her and then two duets. I’m just so proud of those three songs. They’re not traditional rock and roll love songs–the first one is very warm and encouraging; the second has a breathless, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, and the third has a much more soaring, we-can-conquer-the-world together feeling. I get verklempt just thinking about it.
Black Hole Wedding is playing at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre as part of the New York Music Festival (NYMF) on July 15th at 8pm, July 18th at 1pm and 5pm, July 19th at 9pm, and July 20th at 1pm.