Penny Seats' "Edges" is a song cycle about navigating your 20s
The Penny Seats Theatre Company has a celebrated history of presenting high-quality productions of shows that may not be especially well known. Peter and the Starcatcher, and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well... are some of the just-out-of-the-mainstream productions the theater company has offered the last few years.
The Penny Seats' newest production, Edges, written by University of Michigan alumni Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and Dear Evan Hansen fame) is no exception. Edges is a song cycle, which means there isn’t much plot, but instead a central theme; in this case, navigating the adventures and struggles that come with being in your 20s. (The musical's best-known tune is "Be My Friend," aka "The Facebook Song.")
Edges is being staged at the Kerrytown Concert House from Feb. 8-16. I spoke with cast members Matthew Pecek, Kristin McSweeney, and Logan Balcom about the differences between working on a song cycle and a more traditional musical, the show’s relevance for people in their 20s and beyond, and more.
Q: Whose idea was it to produce Edges for The Penny Seats?
McSweeney: Our director, Laura Sagolla, presented a proposal to the board of The Penny Seats to produce Edges last year.
Q: What makes a song cycle different to work on than a musical with a more conventional plot?
Pecek: Less room for detail but more room for personal connection. Each number from a song cycle tells its own story, which means we only really get to see one step of an entire journey. From the actor’s perspective, it requires we give each character familiar qualities that an audience can understand and connect to. In a more traditional musical more time can be spent establishing unique characteristics in a person.
Balcom: Each song has a unique feel and emotion to it, and that variety really takes a bit more pondering to connect the dots between all of the numbers. I feel that this allows for a bit more freedom of expression from each soloist and performer in their particular songs, while still feeling that connection to the other songs in the cycle that have similar undercurrents and motivations.
Q: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are now very well known for their award-winning work on La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Greatest Showman. Does that make it a “safer” bet to produce something of theirs that not many people may have heard of?
McSweeney: I think Pasek and Paul's growth in popularity definitely makes producing their first ever show a little "safer." It's kind of an unfortunate side of the business. Until certain writers, directors, producers, or actors are big enough to draw a crowd, a lot of important stories go unheard. However, in this case, it's working for our benefit and theirs. More people will show up to listen to their very first creation because they saw The Greatest Showman the other night, or because they've seen or at least listened to Dear Evan Hansen or La La Land. It's exciting to see and be familiar with their present successes, but to then get to experience where it all began.
Balcom: The show is being put on in the Kerrytown Concert House, which is where it originally premiered back when the composers were undergrads at the University of Michigan.
Q: This is essentially a show about 20-somethings trying to navigate this decade of their lives. As actors in your 20s, does the possible familiarity with the situations or feelings in the show make it easier or more difficult to perform?
Pecek: The familiarity is a double-edged sword. Personal connection to our material is always good but many of these characters are hurt or angry. Empathizing with our music too strongly means we have to feel those things on a deeper level as well, which can be exhausting. One number we sing tells a story I feel like I’m living but like I haven’t gotten to the last verse yet, if that makes sense. It’s a bit surreal.
Balcom: The familiarity of the subject matter in the show makes it personally easier to relate with. As actors, it’s important to be able to draw from personal experience to create lifelike characters for the stage, and the feelings and situations portrayed in Edges lend themselves to being quite easily accessible for both me, personally, as well as my castmates.
McSweeney: Being in our 20s while portraying people that same age has made the process both easier and more difficult. It's made it easier to connect with these characters and to tell their stories, but at times, because it's so prevalent for all of us, it can hit home a little harder which can make performing it difficult. It's been a really cool experience though to get to tell these stories that we can relate to so easily while being directed by two other adults that had totally different struggles in their 20s.
Q: Are you staging the show with costumes, sets, choreography, etc., or will it be staged like a concert?
McSweeney: There won't be all of the theatrical elements of a full-blown production, but we've taken what the space will allow us to do and created something that's more like if a full production and a concert had a baby. Songs are blocked and/or choreographed and, I suppose, you could say we all have costumes. We all have specific outfits we have planned to wear for each show; they just come from our own closets instead of a costume shop. There won't be anything besides a platform for the stage and very minimal props. This show doesn't really call for a spectacle, though. The music is so much already in terms of the emotional rollercoaster that it takes you through, that I think adding too much on top of that would take away.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to see this show now?
Balcom: Sometimes you just need to hear that you are not the only one, and I feel like this show is kind of like a horoscope in that respect; anyone can see it, and find a part that really feels like it speaks to them in whatever place they happen to be in in their life.
Pecek: Young people should see this show so they’re prepared. Everyone else should so they remember.
McSweeney: Normally people go to the theater and the movies to escape from reality. It gives them the opportunity to feel something else and to step away from whatever they may be dealing with, and sometimes that's good and that's exactly what they need. However, what I find to be so wonderful about this show is that it doesn't shy away from dealing with difficult topics. It won't necessarily give you that escape that you may be looking for, but what it will do is allow you to feel like you aren't alone in what you're dealing with.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
The Penny Seats' production of "Edges" is at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor, on Feb. 8, 9, 14, 15, 16 at 8 pm and Feb. 11 at 4 pm. For tickets and more information, visit pennyseats.org.