Ernest Shackleton was a famous polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic at the turn of the 20th century. After Roald Amundesen won the race to the South Pole, Shackleton wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica from sea to sea. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s boat, Endurance, becoming trapped in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea. His epic tale of survival against all odds is told with a new twist in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” a musical by Joe DiPietro that closes out the season for George Street Playhouse.
In the play, a sleep-deprived single mom and video game music composer is writing about intergalactic exploration and her music somehow reaches Shackleton on his epic Antarctic journey. Together they create a love story across space and time connected through music.
DiPietro, who was born in Teaneck and grew up in Oradell, NJ, is best known for his Tony Award-winning musical “Memphis” and the off-Broadway hit “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” He was introduced to Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda (the husband/wife duo from the band GrooveLily who wrote the music and lyrics) by a mutual friend who said the three would love working together.
“We were lucky enough to meet Joe before he had won his first Tony,” said Vigoda, who stars in the play alongside Wade McCollum. “He was very open to getting to know us, having dinner and talking about what we wanted to write.”
Vigoda and her husband had recently seen a very moving and inspiring museum exhibit about the explorer and thought his would make the perfect story.
“We told Joe the story of Ernest Shackleton and how against all odds with incredible determination, optimism, and leadership skills in the face of the worst situations, Shackleton managed to come through and save everyone,” recalled Vigoda. “It’s such an inspiring story and we happened to mention the part that music played in his adventure. Even when the ship was crushed and the men were trapped on the ice and World War I had begun—which meant there was no possible way they were going to be rescued by anybody—Shackleton insisted that they bring along a banjo. He did this because he knew the power that music would play in making people not give up. As soon as Joe heard that, he said, ‘That’s our way into the story.’”
Vigoda’s character, Kat, was written based on personal experiences of actual life, parenthood, sleep deprivation, and trying to be an artist at the same time. It’s a story about a contemporary woman struggling with the issues and problems that many women face each day. The music is as unique as the plot with songs inspired by the Celtic sound, songs with video game symphonic sound and songs featuring 1914 banjo styling. Kat’s music sort of meets in the middle.
“This show, more than any other we’ve ever written, is less a pop-song-containing musical with separated numbers,” explained Vigoda. “There certainly are some of those, but the entire middle section of the show is told almost completely through song. The music is geared more towards a symphonic and classical sound that anything we’ve ever done before.”
One of the most unique attributes to the play is how they use the setting of Kat’s music studio in Brooklyn. The studio has a computer with a live looping program, keyboards, drum machine, pedals, and electric violins. The play actually utilizes live looping — the art of recording a particular sound (voice or instrument) and looping it over and over to help build an entire soundscape or song arrangement — something that is rarely, if ever, done live in musicals.
While DiPietro is sure to have many friends and family members from New Jersey attend the show, so will Vigoda. This play marks her return to Central New Jersey, where she spent what she calls “her formative years.” Vigoda attended Princeton University as a 15 year-old math student. She recalls being one of the few girls in a program with lots of boys who knew exactly what they wanted to do for the rest of their life — become a math professor. In stark contrast, Vigoda was a normal 15 year old. She wasn’t thinking about the rest of her life, she was thinking about going on dates, being accepted and wanted people to like her. Being so young at school was difficult on her and her family.
“It was hard for me not knowing what I wanted and being extremely young at the time,” said Vigoda. “But it was an amazing environment in which to grow up. Some of my closest lifelong friends in the world are from those first years at Princeton. I was lucky enough to be part of one of the a cappella groups – The Katzenjammers – and those are the people who will be coming to this show. They’re still very close in my life. I feel like the people I met at Princeton – even when I was 15 or 16 – ended up being such high-quality, close-to-the-heart friends.”
Vigoda can certainly relate to the leadership qualities of Shackleton, because she went on a great adventure while at Princeton. After her freshman year, she took a year off to study voice and violin. When she returned at age 17, her goal was to become entirely independent and she figured the best way to do that was to get a scholarship. So, she did something few would have expected — she enrolled in the ROTC program.
“At that point, I was a 17 year-old sedentary violin-playing little girl that was a bit timid,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was being thrown into these situations where I not only had to take orders, but I had to give them. It was leadership training and we had to go out in the field and do 40-foot rope drops, crawl through the mud, and shoot weapons. It was very intense, but incredible training for what I do now. Learning how to deal with a drill sergeant is great training for learning how to deal with difficult personalities in the music business!”
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is playing at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, April 22 through May 17. For more information visit http://www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.