To have written a full-length musical before one’s 22nd birthday is no small feat. To have written two is almost unheard of.
Mike Johnson ’09 wowed the College of William and Mary community two years ago with “Tragedy! (A Musical Comedy),” inspired by Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” has just released his second major work.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” co-written by Johnson and Brent Cirves ’81, recently began casting for a run at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C., this summer. Johnson and Cirves also applied for a space in the New York Fringe Festival, where ‘Tragedy!’ was performed, but they will not hear back for several weeks.
The play, loosely based off of the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, tells the story of William, a young musician who is brought into the home of fellow composer Roderick Usher where he meets Usher’s partner Annabel Lee and brilliant sister Madeline. The play follows William, Annabel Lee and Madeleine as they write music together and William begins to fall in love with both the young women. The story takes a dark turn however, when characters begin to descend into madness after an unexpected death.
Unlike many musicals, the songs in ‘Usher’ are more than just expository.
“All the characters are brilliant musicians and songwriters,” Johnson said. “Each song is supposedly written and performed by characters in the play.”
Johnson said this aspect gives his show a more cohesive feel.
“They all have a reason for their songs,” he said.
Drawing largely from Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” also incorporates other Poe works, including poems “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.”
Johnson said he was inspired to write the show while he was studying abroad in China when Cirves, his former high school teacher, sent him the story.
“We had been talking about doing a musical together,” Johnson said. “After reading the story I wrote him back saying ‘Let’s just do it.’”
Johnson and Cirves gave themselves a timeline of one year to complete the show, splitting the work according to their strengths. Johnson, a music major, covered the composing, while Cirves, an established playwright, wrote the book and lyrics. After Johnson returned from China, the two began an intensive brainstorming session for show material.
“Everyday for two weeks, I would write a song and Brent would write a scene,” Johnson said. “In the end, there were three decent songs. Or at least three that I didn’t hate.”
The show currently runs about two hours, with 19 songs, two full acts and an intermission.Except for one piece written for a full orchestra, the music takes on a much simpler and darker sound when compared to Johnson’s first work because this time, it uses only a single piano, a string quartet and four vocalists.
“‘Tragedy!’ was big, it was loud, it was crude. It was terribly offensive.” Brian Paljug ’09 said. “This has a much more haunting quality … It’s dark, it’s moody, it’s almost Gothic Romantic.”
Paljug, who has been involved in the project since the first read-through of the script and has sang the male parts in recordings submitted to the festivals. He recently performed in a musical recital of the show in Ewell Hall.
“[Johnson] has really grown a lot musically since ‘Tragedy!’ and you can see this,” Paljug, also involved in ‘Tragedy!,’ said. “This music is much more refined.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” will run for a limited engagement July 11-24 at the Cornerstore Arts Center in Washington, D.C., after which the duo plans to send their book and libretto to regional theaters across the country.
“I think this project has legs,” Cirves said. “It could go places.”