The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Programs in Theater and Music Theater at Princeton University will present a workshop of a new musical in development, Mad Dreams, conceived and directed by Princeton Professor R.N. Sandberg, who also wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Lewis Center Resident Composer and Music Director Vince di Mura, and performed by Princeton students. The musical re-imagines Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1961 as the first black student enrolls at the University of Georgia. Performances are on October 19 at 8 p.m., October 20 at 2 p.m., and October 21 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Wallace Theater at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton University campus. The show is free and open to the public, however advance tickets are recommended.
Sandberg began working on the concept and script more than 10 years ago while he was doing research on desegregation in the South for another project. Noting that the University of Georgia was located in Athens reminded Sandberg that Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he loved and knew well, was set in ancient Athens and led him to imagine possible storylines, characters and themes that might be the basis for a new play. Shakespeare’s play — one of his most performed works — follows lovers whose backgrounds present obstacles to their unions, an intermixing of two distinct worlds, and characters whose social class shapes how they are viewed.
Sandberg resets the story in Athens, Georgia, in 1961 as the first black students enroll at the University of Georgia, ending an era of desegregation at the college. Characters in Midsummer become a white dean at the college and owner of a nightclub (Thaddeus), a black singer in the club (Tania), an upper class young white woman who seeks to escape her suffocating life (Mia), and a young black man, one of the University of Georgia’s first black students (Zander). A piano player at the club (Robin) serves in the presenter role of Puck in Shakespeare’s play. A group of back-up singers take the place of the retinue of fairies in Midsummer. The tensions in the musical are rooted in societal and individual views on race and class and forbidden love at a time when these issues are particularly volatile. The first act is grounded largely in Shakespeare’s story, while the second act of the musical lets the American context of the 1960’s and beyond resonate more fully.
As Sandberg worked more on the play he found that developing it as a musical would help to lift the story out of the real world and help to create a heightened, more magical world, and he invited di Mura to compose the music. Sandberg and di Mura have worked together on a number of projects, including many Lewis Center productions such as Fires in the Mirror and A Streetcar Named Desire. The show received a workshop reading at Passage Theatre, the professional theater company based in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2014. The team has continued to significantly rework the piece over the past four years.
The score for the musical is arranged for two keyboards, guitar, bass and drums and spans a range of genres to convey the period, the place, and the characters including jazz, R&B, country and bluegrass with musical references to Little Richard, George Jones, Frank Sinatra, Big Mama Thornton, the Everly Brothers and Etta James. Di Mura’s score is challenging with complex harmonies.
Sixteen Princeton students have been cast to originate the roles in Mad Dreams, having the unique opportunity to work directly with the playwright and composer in the process of developing a new musical. The cast includes senior Sally Lemkemeir, juniors Chamari White-Mink and Abby Spare, sophomores Paige Allen, Lydia Gompper, Faith Iloka, Haydon John, and Asher Muldoon, first-year students Ethan Boll, Molly Bremer, BT Hayes, Ed Horan, Katherine Hosie, Sally Root, and Giscelle Rosario, and grad student Sakari Ishetiar. Under di Mura’s musical direction are juniors John Nydam on keyboard and Andrew Damian on guitar, sophomore Ben Alessio on drums, and first-year student Gus Allen on bass with di Mura on piano.
Students are also taking key production roles with junior Kwame Amaning and sophomore Minjae Kimas as co-stage managers, senior Victoria Davidjohn as lighting designer, sophomore Haley Zeng as sound designer, and senior Jessica Bailey as choreographer. Caitlin Brown, Lewis Center Costume Shop Technician, is designing costumes.
Sandberg teaches in both the Theater Program and English Department at Princeton and is a professional theater director and playwright. He directed a number of recent Lewis Center productions including Cloud 9, Madman Robertson, Uncle Vanya, and How I Learned to Drive, as well as Princeton Summer Theater productions of Pygmalion and The Heidi Chronicles. His plays have been seen in Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Panama, and South Korea, as well as at theaters throughout the U.S. He has been commissioned by, among others, George Street Playhouse, McCarter Theatre, Metro Theater Company, and Seattle Children’s Theatre. His plays with music include A Child’s Christmas in NJ (with di Mura) for Passage Theatre, A Woman of Means for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and Love is a Train, seen recently at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Sandberg is a Princeton alumnus and in 2014 received the University’s President’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
Di Mura is a composer, arranger, jazz pianist and musical director, appearing on concert stages and theaters throughout North America, Canada, Europe and Latin America. He has conducted seasons at theaters through the U.S. Best known for his arrangements of “My Way: A Tribute to the Music of Frank Sinatra,” “Simply Simone” and “I Left My Heart: A Tribute to the Music of Tony Bennett,” he has musical directed productions of these shows at a number of theaters. He has been commissioned for original compositions and arrangements by many regional professional theater and university theater and dance programs. Di Mura is the author and curator of “A Conversation with The Blues,” a 14-part web instructional series on improvisation through the Blues. He has received composition and jazz fellowships from the William Goldman Foundation, Temple University, Meet the Composer, CEPAC, the Union County Foundation, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Puffin Cultural Forum and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He has 6 CDs on the market, including “Imperfect Balance” (2000), “A Darker Shade of Romance” (2007), “For Lost Words” (2008) and “Love Was” (2012) in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, “California Sage” (2010), and his most recent release, “Meditations on the Sacred Heart.”
Performances are free and open to the public; however advance tickets are recommended and are available through University Ticketing online at tickets.princeton.edu, in person at the box offices at Frist Campus Center and the Lewis Arts complex, or by calling 609-258-9220. Seats not occupied 15 minutes prior to curtain time may be made available to other patrons.
To learn more about this event, the Programs in Theater and Music Theater, and the over 100 performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts, and lectures presented each year at the Lewis Center, most of them free, visit arts.princeton.edu.