Michael McFaden has long had an interest in spiritualism, but the Nashville writer never could have anticipated the sequence of unusual events that led to the creation of his operetta City of Light, which won Boiler Room Theatre's 2012 Pressure Cooker musical competition and makes its formal world premiere this weekend at the company's venue in Franklin.
McFaden's work has its origins in his yearly pilgrimage to the spiritualist community of Lily Dale in western New York state, which he describes as "a ramshackle Victorian town that has seen better days ... where you meet the most interesting people." One of those people was a New York City casting director who was seeking a medium to contact a deceased loved one.
While talking theatrical shop amid all of Lily Dale's spiritual healers and tourists, McFaden's new acquaintance asked, "Why has no one used this place as the setting for a play?" (Lily Dale's full- and part-time residents have included such luminaries as Harry Houdini, Susan B. Anthony and Arthur Conan Doyle.)
"That was the lightbulb. That was something I could write about. I'm not really prolific, but I had been searching for subjects since Ain't We Got Fun," he says, referring to a 2005 musical he wrote and produced in Music City, using 1920s-era Tin Pan Alley songs for his score.
The very next day, McFaden received another sign. "I had gone to a medium — to contact my father — and, among other things, she claimed that I was going to be writing a play about spiritualism."
Cue the theme from The X-Files.
So McFaden set out to craft an early 20th century story about a young widow who goes to Lily Dale to search for a medium to help her contact her recently deceased husband. There she encounters a cross section of Lily Dale's unusual residents, from suffragettes to psychic researchers, plus famed magician Houdini.
Of course, a musical needs music. A fortuitous bit of timing provided McFaden with inspiration: He was scheduled to direct a Gilbert & Sullivan piece for the Pittsburgh Savoyards.
"I had always wanted to write something in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan," McFaden says. "But how do you imitate that style without it being seen as parody?"
McFaden knew that Sullivan had written other musical pieces without Gilbert. "They'd had a huge falling-out at one point," he says, "and most of that work had been all but lost to history."
With the benefit of the Internet and the excellent Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, McFaden tracked down scores and recordings of a lot of public domain Sullivan music most people aren't familiar with.
"I said. 'This is it! I can write a new Sullivan-styled operetta using all this old music.' I could cherry-pick my way through the scores, write my own lyrics and construct a brand-new libretto."
After a solid year of listening to every note he could find of Sullivan's lost music, McFaden started sketching out his plot, and by early 2011 he had a rough draft and had started adding the songs. His timing for entering his work in the Boiler Room contest was also serendipitous. "I had scheduled my own reading in 2012, and then I found out that the Pressure Cooker was seeking entries."
"I'm glad that we finally were able to get this show slotted into our season," says BRT artistic director Jamey Green. "It was originally planned for March, but we've been busy with our mainstage shows and our children's programming.
"I'll be excited to see this stage of the finished product," Green continues. "The music itself is not original — it's Sullivan's — but its presentation is. And by the second round of Pressure Cooker, Michael had pretty much brought us a complete show. What we're doing now is offering staff assistance and being consultative. Michael's company has this one whole week to bring it in and produce it."
McFaden is directing, with musical direction by Rodney McCasland. There are full period costumes and a set, and the cast of 20 includes Daniel Vincent, Mallory Gleason Mundy, Liz Kalota, Tony Nappo, Steve Mogck, Aaron Velthouse, Melissa Garner Campbell and Benjamin Kuttler.
"It's a gift to have these three performances," McFaden says. "It's key to taking the project to the next level."
For tickets — $20 for adults, $15 for students — call BRT at 794-7744.