For the past several years, my friend Richard Michelson — an awardwinning poet, children’s book author, art dealer, and Oak Bluffs summer resident — has been enthusiastically talking about a new project he’s been working on based on the life of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. “Dear Edvard” is Rich’s entrée as a lyricist into the world of musical theater. Last December I attended a staged reading of “Dear Edvard” in Brooklyn, and it was well worth the trip. On Monday, Sept. 3, those of you left on the Vineyard will only have to go as far as Vineyard Haven to see a staged reading of this remarkable work-in-progress.
I recently emailed Rich a few questions about “Dear Edvard.” Below is an edited version of his responses.
You described “Dear Edvard” as an art history biopic, love story, psychological exploration, and family drama. This is all very intriguing, to say the least. Can you explain in a bit more detail what that means?
Well, we basically tried to hit all the Google search-engine words (Munch was a canny promoter of his work)! Seriously, though, Munch used his own life, and his familial and love relationships, to explore various psychological states, not solely for his personal therapeutic purposes (though it was that too) but to use his emotional life as a testing ground to better understanding human nature. As he wrote in his diary, “I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the spirit.” It is an art history biopic because many of my words are stolen from Munch’s diary, where he wrestled with the artistic ideas of his time. Munch was all about passion, plus the show is sometimes funny — I promise; you saw a reading in Brooklyn, Kate, tell everyone how much fun it was!
It is funny, of course it has humor, you wrote it, but the humor isn’t what drives it. You’ve told me you’ve long been fascinated with Munch. What is it that has drawn you to him?
Everyone is familiar with Munch’s painting of “The Scream,” which has become, as my friend Michael Patrick Hearn has written, “the Mona Lisa for neurotics.” But Munch is far from a “one-hit wonder.” His oeuvre is deep, his influence wide, and his technical innovations revolutionary. He painted his inner life with intense scrutiny, yet never abandoned his exploration of the formal possibilities of art. Munch lived at a time of huge societal changes — a bohemian generation clashing with the older conservative bourgeoisie, not dissimilar to when I grew up in the 1960s. Munch was drawn to the rebellion, while his own strict conservative Christian background created a duality that was at war within him. Add to that the beginnings of psychoanalysis, a burgeoning of women’s liberation, and sexual liberation movements coinciding with a deadly epidemic similar to the AIDS crisis we suffered in America during the 1980s.
Dr. Jacobsen’s Clinic for Nervous Disorders and Alcoholism, where Munch committed himself in 1908, is the setting for this piece. Why did you choose this time and this setting?
Munch committed himself when he feared he was suffering from what we call today a nervous breakdown, and a descent into madness (which followed a flowering of some of his greatest works). Dr. Jacobsen had some revolutionary ideas, and along with shock therapy, Munch was treated with “talk therapy,” then in its infancy. The clinic gave us a natural setting for Munch to voice and relive his fears and triumphs and relationships. Plus it allows him to interact with his nurse.
You use Munch’s real-life nurse to explore his relationship with art, sanity, and women. Who was this nurse, and how much of her relationship with Munch was real and how much did you create?
We know much about Munch’s life, since he basically explored his every waking thought and mood in his paintings and diaries. He was 46 years old and already famous (infamous) when he committed himself. His nurse was also a real person, Sigrid Schake, who had just begun work at the clinic. However, thankfully, there isn’t much we know about her after her stint caring for Munch. “Dear Edvard” needed a character of equal strength and interest in order to work dramatically. We know Munch and his nurse engaged in “role-playing” as part of his therapy. The central question is, How would this sheltered, naive 18-year-old respond to Munch’s tales of experience?
Can you explain how Munch’s paintings weave their way into the storyline?
Munch actually brought his paintings with him to the clinic — hundreds of them — he couldn’t live without his “children.” So the hospital room is also his studio, allowing unlimited possibilities in the setting, as the subjects of his paintings come to life.
Please tell us a bit about the team you’ve been working with on this production.
Steven Schoenberg schooled me in how to write a musical. Steven is a much-lauded composer whose talents cross into musical theater, classical compositions, film scoring, children’s music, and solo improvisational piano performances. Google him, and the rest of the team, and be amazed. Tim McDevitt (Munch) just returned from performing Bernstein’s “Mass” with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia. Pearl Sun (Nurse) is flying in for the performance between her Sunday and Tuesday performances in “Come From Away” on Broadway. Paul Masse (music director) has conducted the “Scottsboro Boys,” “Avenue Q,” “Wicked,” and other shows on Broadway. And Kevin Newbury is one of the most innovative directors working today.
As a writer of children’s books and poetry, what inspired you to take the leap into musical theater?
I didn’t know any better!
A staged reading of “Dear Edvard” will be performed on Monday, Sept. 3, at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Join Richard Michelson and the cast of “Dear Edvard” for a talk after the performance. mvplayhouse.org