Encore Theatre goes "Into the Wild" with a musical about Christopher McCandless



U-M grad Conor Ryan plays the main character, Christopher McCandless, as well as Alexander Supertramp in The Encore Theatre's take on Into the Wild. / Photo by Michele Anliker.

The developmental premiere of the new stage musical adaptation of Into the Wild opens this weekend at The Encore Theatre. The play (and book that it’s adapted from) are based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, an Emory graduate who abandoned all of his possessions and stopped communicating with his family when he chose to hitchhike to Alaska.

Into the Wild is directed by Mia Walker, who has worked on some of the most influential plays in the musical theater world over the last ten years. She directed the current national tour of Pippin, acted as associate director for both Waitress and Finding Neverland on Broadway, and was the assistant director of Invisible Thread (previously Witness Uganda) at Second Stage Theatre.

The play is written by Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Janet Allard (book and lyrics). Tsakalakos studied at Tisch School of the Arts under the mentorship of William Finn, composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Recently, I was extremely fortunate to have an in-depth email interview with both Mia Walker and Niko Tsakalakos, where I had the chance to ask them about both the show and their career paths up until this point.

Q: What particularly appealed to you about Into the Wild?

NT: The story is primal. All good musicals are. Chris McCandless’ story immediately spoke to me -- his longing immediately sung to me. I knew I could tell his story through a contemporary song-writing style as opposed to traditional musical theater. The beauty of a musical is that songs allow you to explore the inner world of a character -- in Chris’ case, what he was feeling, thinking, struggling with both on his way and inside the Alaskan wilderness. I also felt there was a role for the ensemble/choral element because of the ‘community’ aspect of the story -- the people he met and inspired along the way, who kept him company when he was most alone.

MW: I was drawn to the material and the music. Into the Wild -- the book and the film -- is very much part of the mainstream, and I am fascinated by how Chris McCandless’s story has become so iconic. When I tell people about the project, almost everyone I mention it to is familiar with the story, and it has touched them in some way. I am always searching for work that pushes the boundaries of musical theater, and I feel this piece does that -- in the complicatedness of the story, the raw humanity of Chris’s journey and death, and in the style of the music that channels the heartbeat of Americana. The music is an eclectic combination of pop, rock, folk, bluegrass. This has been one of the most challenging projects I have ever worked on -- and the most fulfilling. I truly believe the story is inherently theatrical, and as I have grown closer to the material, I have become committed to telling Chris’ story onstage and celebrating his life. It is also the story of the people who became his extended family as he traversed the country and ultimately made his way to Alaska.

Q: How did you initially get the idea for this musical?

NT: Janet had the initial idea for this musical -- she was living in Alaska when the book was out and considered turning it into a play, but then the movie came out -- so that was the end of that.n Fast forward a few years later at NYU, Janet planted the seed of us writing this story together. She told me to go watch the movie because she felt my music was the right fit for this story as a musical. At NYU, we had written a song called “I Have a Lion.” This song spawned our collaboration. Upon graduating, I asked her if she would collaborate with me on a semi-autobiographical musical Pool Boy that my then mentor, William Finn, was interested in producing. It eventually enjoyed a world premiere run at Barrington Stage Company in the summer of 2010. It was after that production where we started thinking, "What next?"

“Into the Wild” was the first song I wrote spontaneously after reading the book. Then, Janet and I took the letter Chris writes to Russel Franz and turned it into lyrics and musicalized it. Eventually, after much persistence (thank you, Janet!) the two songs and a letter we wrote to the McCandless family ended up in their hands and Walt, Chris’ father, gave Janet a call. We drove down to Virginia Beach a few weeks later to meet with him and Billie and soon after getting to know them and hearing them share their son’s story with us -- we were given permission to write the story as a musical.

Q: Would you talk a little bit about what the process of developing this work has been like?

MW: The process of directing this developmental premiere of Into the Wild has been an incredible journey. It has been a constant balancing act of working rigorously to help the writers in their process to create an honest theatrical representation of this complicated story, while also recognizing this is a work of theater and must be able to stand on its own. The process of developing a new musical is intense -- because every change you make has a ripple effect, and as certain things become clearer, other parts start to blur, and you must always remain focused on the big picture, while also paying brutally close attention to detail. I have been blessed with an incredible creative team and cast, who have all selflessly dedicated themselves to this work, and The Encore has been the most generous, wonderful incubator, supporting us at every turn. Chris teaches us to not be afraid of the edge -- the places others may be scared to go. We have all been inspired by his life philosophy, and in turn, we have all pushed ourselves to the edge in this process. What is emerging is a very special production, with lots of heart and soul.

NT: It’s been a long journey of workshops, readings, rewriting, and more rewriting. We’ve traveled to Virginia Beach to meet Walt and Billie McCandless (who have been wonderful to us). As part of the commission we were granted from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, we then trekked across the country to interview some of the people Alex met along the way. We even ended up in Alaska to get as close as we could to Chris and his single-minded focus on Alaska.

Here at Encore, we are living the culmination of our work and the ability to incorporate Chris’ own writing, journal entries, and photos he took throughout his journey, which had always been a must-have for us in telling this story. Dan Cooney, the artistic director, actually played the Wayne character in one of our New York readings and he offered us this amazing opportunity to put the show on its feet and see what we have, away from the New York spotlight. We are very grateful. It’s called a developmental premiere, but this thing is a full on production and we are very lucky to have this opportunity.

Q: Mia, you are also planning to direct Pool Boy, Niko’s autobiographical musical that he wrote with Janet Allard, at Pittsburgh CLO in the near future. How do the three of you collaborate together when working on a piece?

MW: What I love about Janet and Niko is they balance each other perfectly. Niko is a brilliant composer and musician who has a rock edge to his writing but also composes from a deeply personal place. Janet is one of the most talented writers I have ever worked with and witnessed -- she is calm, present, and open to change but also knows when to be strong and stay true to her vision. Together, there is messiness and order, change and consistency, objectivity and personal immersion. In short, they’re awesome. We work well together because we can be honest with each other -- no frills. Our artistic conversations are productive and cathartic because we’re able to be authentic.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge of this show for you? What aspects are you proudest of about Into the Wild?

NT: I’m proud of the fact that Janet and I have stuck together through the thick of it -- through all of the challenges and ups and downs that go into making a new musical. As a composer, I’ve matured in my ability to tell a story dramatically through music, without losing my singer-songwriter DNA and sound. I’m very proud that it feels like a "score" and not just a compilation of songs. I am proud that the score reflects the growth of our protagonist from an idealistic kid who breaks away, to someone who faces the hardship of Alaska, to someone who faces the terror of dying alone. The music starts to fracture in the second act, the space becomes more psychological. There’s a folk sound that almost goes punk the deeper in the wild we get.

The biggest challenge has been, how do you tell the story of a guy who is alone in the wild and not have him be alone singing about it on stage for two hours? Through the use of memory and flashbacks, the ensemble, dream, and other ways of bending time we have hopefully been able to keep the momentum and build of the piece.

MW: The biggest challenge in directing this show is that it’s new. With this piece, it is all unknown. And to add on the reality that Chris was real, the characters are all real, it ups the stakes and makes it even more important that the show be meaningful and live up to its legacy. I am also used to working with the same people show to show -- but in this process, I have been working with all new collaborators. That is a new experience for me, and it has been so revitalizing to meet new artists and venture into the unknown together. I am proudest of how this production does not strive for perfection -- it is more rooted in the act of searching, discovering, not knowing, learning. It is not meant to be comfortable -- it is meant to test us, like how Chris tested himself.

Q: Niko, you have said that you caught the musical theater bug while you were in L.A., playing with the rock band Saint Friday. How did you initially discover a love of musicals, and what convinced you to move back east to study at Tisch?

NT: I’ve always loved musicals and theater, growing up. But it wasn’t till I was at the lowest point in my life personally and artistically living in Los Angeles that theater came to me. A friend of mine and colleague, lyricist Debra Gussin, insisted I sign up for this musical theater composer-lyricist workshop at the Academy of New Musical Theatre (an off-spring of the BMI Lehman Engle Workshop in New York). I procrastinated, missed the deadline even, but she wouldn’t give up on me and got them to extend the deadline for me. I submitted three songs and was accepted. It was the introductory speech to the workshop that John Sparks gave that day about the "sacred space" of theater where my world shifted. I was so inspired, I knew I was destined to pursue a life in the theater.

At the time, yes, I was rocking out with my band Saint Friday. It was the hardest thing to do -- to leave the band -- to pursue a deeper education in theater and music. Things were really cooking and we had found our sound. … I miss playing with my brother and best friend, Achilles -- I think about it every day. And I know we’ll reunite soon in some way!

Q: You’ve studied under William Finn, the composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. What are some of the things you have learned about how to write music and lyrics for musical theater, and how has this impacted what you’ve written for Into the Wild?

NT: Bill Finn has a heart of gold. He gave me the spark I needed to trust my voice and he really gave me my segue into musical theater. His ears perked up like a Yorkshire terrier when he heard my music and he continued, without sugar coating, to guide and encourage me to write from what I know, to dare to write from my own experience. This was huge. He also taught me how to harness the musical material I have -- use it to its fullest -- and helped me write more dramatically. He hasn’t been as closely involved with this show, but the little he has heard and relayed to me has been super impactful.

Q: Mia, how do you decide what new projects are worth taking on?

MW: I’ve learned that no project is perfect. No script is perfect. No score is perfect. It’s all about potential for me. If there is even a glimmer of potential -- a topic I’m intrigued by, a song that I can’t get out of my head, an idea that challenges me, a person I’m interested in working with -- all are legitimate reasons, to me, to take on a project. I am always trying to make sure the work I choose to put my energy into is work that is, in some way, important -- whether it’s helping someone get their voice out there, or telling a story that isn’t usually told onstage, or getting audiences to empathize with a character they wouldn’t normally feel compassion for.

Q: Who were your influences (both in the folk world as well as the musical theater realm) when writing Into the Wild?

NT: Sonically, modern folk rock bands like Mumford and Sons, Lumineers and singer-songwriters like Damien Rice. My wife, actually, has not only been an inspiration but an influence as she is a composer herself -- she comes at the theater from a classical and opera background -- we met at the NYU Writing Program. She is finishing her PhD -- so there has been a lot more classical music playing in the house. I’m discovering the world of classical music in a way I hadn’t before and I think it has opened my mind as a composer and freed me up in many ways to not get trapped in some of the formulas of pop music.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers and directors?

MW: I would suggest assisting for a director you admire; getting to observe or participate in as many rehearsal rooms as possible; keep your own work and visions alive; try to focus on finding the best path for you and not comparing yourself to other directors. Seek out writers whose work you like, make friends with composers; stay open to new experiences; take time to take care of yourself because the director sets the tone of the room, and if you’re out of sorts, everyone else will be too!

NT: Don’t be so precious with what you write -- be willing to tear it up and start anew. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Be strong when you need your core, essential material to remain part of the work because everyone will be throwing in their two cents in the process. This balance of being true to yourself while being open to new ideas requires a level of discipline I have only learned through time and through failure and, of course, it is not easy.

Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.

"Into the Wild" runs April 13 to May 7 at The Encore Theatre, 2126 Broad St., Dexter. Showtimes: Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. There will be no performance on Easter Sunday, April 16, and the closing performance on May 7 begins at 2 pm. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets and more info.