July 2, 2009

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Robots!
Locals create new musical robot comedy
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

With the tagline “Can a chip-for-brains save the galaxy?,” a robot is center stage in a locally made new musical comedy, Hot Buttons.

It’s set in a future world where a monopoly makes pretty much everything but its products don’t work and people are getting hurt, said David Agans of Amherst. The robot protagonist is meant to fix the products, and since he’s not human he thinks he can do it all. But “Actually, he has some human characteristics which cause him to fail in ways he’s too proud to see, so his arc is discovering his own flaws,” Agans said.

Although it’s been about 20 years in the making, the premiere of Hot Buttons will be somewhat of a surprise to its creators, Agans and Winfield Clark of New Boston. They agreed to stay away from rehearsals after turning it over to Jeff Caron to direct it for Milford Area Players.

An early version of Hot Buttons ran at Agans’ alma mater, M.I.T., in about 1997, and they continued to work on it and seek feedback. Agans is the author of an engineering nonfiction book, Debugging.

Agans wrote the book for Hot Buttons and both wrote lyrics. They partnered on the show around 1995 after Agans posted that he was seeking a composer on a bulletin board.

“I wanted to write a sci-fi show, have it take place in future, and be about business,” Agans said. As he worked on it, he realized it was really about this robot.

Various other robot characters appeared in popular culture during Hot Buttons’ development.

There’s “cynical” Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Short Circuit, “which had the personality of its creator,” Agans said.

“I considered having those characteristics in other robots,” but they tend to be “very cliché and narrow,” Agans said.

“I’m sure there’s some of that in there, but it’s not really intended to spoof anything,” Agans said.

“As it happens, the social context has kind of caught up with us,” Clark said, since Hot Buttons is about “corporate malfeasance.”

The monopoly idea brings to mind Urinetown. “I like Urinetown a lot ... but Urinetown really is a spoof,” making fun of things familiar to the theater-going crowd, Agans said.

“I’m thinking How to Succeed in Business meets Futurama is what this is ... but it’s a new story, you’re not going to recognize anything you’ve seen before,” and it’s not campy, Agans said.

“Hopefully it will stand on its own and other people will spoof it .... We’d obviously like this show to go much further than Milford, New Hampshire,” Agans said.

Music
“I go to a lot of new musicals, because I always want to see what’s going on. What I’ve found is that a lot of new shows have very discordant music,” Agans said. His theory is that one of the few ways a composer can make a new sound is with new chords.

Clark’s songs are not familiar. The melodies are not anything you’ve heard before “but they are melodious” and “catchy,” Agans said.

“I realized what was going on when I was writing lyrics for them,” Agans said. Normally, one tries to match the cadence to natural speech, but Clark uses a different rhythm. You have to be careful to make things sound natural when writing lyrics for Clark’s music, Agans said. “I think that’s to his advantage ... [that] makes it unique to all of the familiar old chestnuts that are out there ... but allows him to make melodies that are enjoyable ... and don’t challenge the listener,” Agans said.

“What I’ve been aiming for is a sound that’s sort of halfway between composed music and sort of pop music, so it’s really eclectic, depending on the mood and specific song and context,” Clark said. 

Clark started his training as a folk singer but in his late middle age earned a degree in music composition in Canada. He’s always listened to classical music.

He’s written a children’s musical and has another project in the works, but mainly writes choral music and art songs.

“When I was in music school the only instrument I could get in on was voice, and I’ve always sung in choral groups. So I tend to think in terms of vocal music,” Clark said.

Putting it on stage
“It’s really in the last four or five years that we’ve been working on this version in earnest,” Agans said. They had actors produce a demo CD in 2005, including Caron, who was one of the people who offered feedback.

After more changes, Caron said he’d like to direct it if they had a venue. “I thought the idea of a robot musical was just such a good idea,” Caron said.

Agans is a founder and current president of MAP, which has never produced a musical before. Some board members wanted to in the past, but felt it was too expensive and they lacked know-how. Caron, however, has directed “dozens” of musicals. He went through the script with a red pen, “having no idea how much of that they were going to be willing to change,” Caron said. It was more than he thought he had the right to expect, at about 75 or 80 percent.

Playwrights aren’t “necessarily thinking about the resources that a community theater is going to have,” Caron said. For example, scenes were set in several rooms at a corporation. However, if MAP was building a “cool corporate boardroom” set there’s not much reason for the others, he said. 

“When directing ... you have got to think about what you can simplify so you can spend money on things that you can’t simplify,” Caron said.

That doesn’t mean that the original plan wouldn’t work for a professional production at some point — just not at MAP, Caron said.

Agans is usually involved in MAP’s shows, but to avoid trying to tweak things at rehearsal, “I made a deal with Jeff that I’d pretend I live in San Diego,” Agans said.

“He kind of imposed that on himself,” Caron said. Agans did write software for computerized lights on a robot costume, though.

A life science middle school teacher in Merrimack, Caron has directed plenty of children’s shows, including for Junior Actorsingers and Kids Coop in Derry. He’s directed main stage shows at the Majestic Theatre in Manchester, Actorsingers in Nashua, and Nottingham Theatre Project, and performed all over.

Caron said rehearsing for a premiere isn’t much different but might be a little more work for the actors. None had the advantage of already being familiar with it.

Costuming was a draw, though their robot costumes are limited by the budget and the need for actors to be able to dance in them. “So we couldn’t totally cover them in sheet metal, as cool as that would have been,” Caron said. It was important to Caron that they didn’t just take the easy out and make them androids. “We’ve done as much as we could to make this look as roboty as we could,” Caron said. And they had fun adding attachments that relate to the robots’ jobs, like waitress.

Agans said he and Clark would like to take the show to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to have it produced professionally and become part of a catalog so other community groups can use it.


A Hot Buttons demo CD recording session with Meg Petersen, Steve Damboise, Lanea Ritrovato, Sarah Houghton, Bill Hartery, Brady Lynch, Winfield Clark (composer) and Jed Holland (music director) at the piano. Dave Agans photo.

Cast list
Susan Abis, Alan Amaral, Dave Atkinson, Angela Bendeck, Vick Bennison, Gary Evans, Jamie Feinberg, Caity Glover, Patricia Helbig, Dingo (Steve) Ihde, Kristen Lawson, Cathy McKay, Sarah Murai, Dave Ostrowski, Mark Sousa, Billy Steeves and Cheryl Stocks perform in Hot Buttons. 

If you go
What: Hot Buttons, original musical by David Agans and Winfield Clark, presented by Milford Area Players
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., July 17-July 26
Where: Amato Center, 56 Mont Vernon St., Milford
Tickets: $7-$12
Contact: 673-2258, www.MilfordAreaPlayers.org

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