Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn are preparing themselves for a little bit of Empty Nest Syndrome. On Monday, September 1 -- Labor Day, of course -- their musical Walmartopia opens Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City. That's when they have to let go and just watch to see how the production plays in the big city.
They have good reason to be optimistic about the fate of the show they created and raised. From its first full-length run in Madison early last year to the performance at the New York Fringe Festival and all the way to the sold-out preview shows last week, Walmartopia has received glowing reviews.
The musical is a silly but serious tale of corporate malfeasance and grassroots triumph set to calypso, soul and rock n' roll beats. The heroine of the story, single mom Vicky Latrell (Cheryl Freeman), works at Wal-Mart to support her and her daughter, Maia (Nikki M. James), only to be mistreated and passed over for promotions time and again. Eventually, she stumbles onto a sinister plot by the heads of the corporation (including the disembodied head of Sam Walton) and is shot into a future where Wal-Mart runs the world.
It's a thought that would send a shiver down many a spine. And it was that bizarre but eerily feasible possibility, coupled with the many and varied corporate scandals that have come out in the last few years, which drove Capellaro and Rohn to create Walmartopia.
They set the action in Madison, filling the dialogue with inside jokes about State Street, the Overture Center and the Packers. A local cast and crew was assembled and Mercury Players Theatre presented the musical at the downtown Bartell Theatre. The run sold out and additional dates were added, amusingly enough, at Overture itself. Somewhere along the way, they were granted a spot at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival. It was there that the show's future began to take shape.
After playing to large, appreciative audiences, being invited back to play for the festival's encore series and lead actress Anna Jayne Marquardt winning the Outstanding Actor Award, the right people got excited and an Off Broadway run took seed. Capellaro and Rohn moved their family out to New York to begin work on this next staging of their work, a process that would eventually involve adding six new songs, beefing up the role of the daughter, and plenty of scene tweaking in general.
"It has been really fabulous and a lot of work," says Capellaro. "It's not that we thought it would be a breeze to do, but I certainly expected at some point there'd be a hand off. That didn't happen; we were reworking things up until two nights ago."
The couple has nothing but positive things to say about their creative team. Director Danny Goldstein first came to their attention at a reading of their musical Temp Slave some years ago. When they brought Walmartopia to the last summer's fringe festival, it was suggested that they contact Goldstein for help with the new show.
"We worked really hard and closely with Danny," Capellaro explains. "He's such an inspiration and really made it the best show it could be. We were pulling our hair out trying to figure out how to make sense out of things that just didn't. There was a lot of letting go of things that we found so charming but didn't make sense after we'd added so much. He helped a lot with that."
What got cut? In the original version, the character of Vicky is sent into a dystopian future, still in Madison, where State Street and the Overture Center have been bought out by Wal-Mart. To give the show a wider appeal, however, it was decided that the scenes set in the future would take place in the "new capitol of the United States: Bentonville, Arkansas" (the current location of Wal-Mart's headquarters). The joke about the Packers is gone, too.
But the protagonist is still from Wisconsin, and there's still plenty to laugh, cringe, sigh and cheer for. And the music is pretty catchy, too.
"It has gone very, very well," insists Rohn, who wrote the original score. He worked closely with August Eriksmoen, the music director, to fine-tune existing numbers and to create whole new ones for the Off Broadway run. "August is a very experienced guy, far more than me, but from the beginning he made it clear that it was my vision and that he was there to help me realize it," he says. "He pretty much stayed really true to that so I felt free to say and try anything."
Both veteran Broadway actors and newcomers making their debut joined the Walmartopia family for the run. Rohn explains that Eriksmoen added extremely complex vocal arrangements to flesh out the sound, working closely with actors to find and use their strengths, even some they didn't know they had.
"Everyone worked very hard, long hours," Rohn says. "The vocal abilities ranged a lot with the actors but it didn't matter, he got everyone to do even the most complicated parts. And then the actors would go home with recordings of rehearsals and practice over and over. It's amazing."
So now that the show has found its way into good hands and begins its run soon, what does the (hopefully non-Wal-Mart dominated) future hold for Capellaro and Rohn?
"We want to have a really good run and have a lot of people see the show, obviously," says Capellaro. "But honestly we're not thinking about the future too much because it feels like, hey, we made it to Broadway and I don't feel like we have to go anywhere else. We would love to truly tour someday, though. It would be such a hoot to bring it to places that are surrounded by Walmartopias themselves."Before this, though, Capellaro and Rohn are moving back to Madison to live and work away from the bright lights and busy nights of their baby's big run. Strangely enough, they'll be leaving a place without Wal-Marts to come back to a city that's flanked by them. Perhaps the close proximity will be good fuel to keep fighting their fight, bringing the message of Walmartopia and "thinking outside the big box" to the people who need it the most.