Classes are still not yet in session at Northwestern, but I've started some self-appointed homework: I'm planning to interview lots of different types of artists this semester and first I was lucky enough to talk with Michael Mahler, a Chicagoan best known as a composer, lyricist, music director and actor.
Mahler has previously written musicals that were met with success at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Theatre at the Center, and his most recent hit is the new musical Hero. Here's what he has to say about being a multi-faceted artist in Chicago:
DRC: What was your college experience like? Were you involved with Waa-Mu (Northwestern's annual student-written musical) at all?
MM: Well, when I got to Northwestern I had never written musicals before. I acted in high school, and I had written songs for my band—I was in a rock band in high school—but I had never really put the two together. Then I got to NU and heard about the Waa-Mu show. I started going to writers' meetings, because, you know… you're a freshman at school and want to be involved in everything! I got hooked and ever since then I've been writing for musical theatre. It was a huge, eye-opening experience for me.
DRC: So your career is geared toward writing music and musicals?
MM: Recently—with my show Hero that opened at the Marriott—I've had a lot of exciting momentum in that area and I'm excited to keep exploring it. I also love living in Chicago, which I think is unique of the theater cities in America, especially for artists like myself. I like to write and act, and here I am able to music direct and do a number of different things in the industry.
Chicago can support an incredible theatre community, but it's small enough that somebody like me can carve his own path and do different things without confusing people.
DRC: Do you find that it's challenging to balance multiple interests in your career?
MM: I find that they feed each other. It's partly nice to do more than one thing because, as you'll probably find out, it's a tough business and it's hard to keep consistently working as an actor or a writer. So it's nice to be able to pay the bills multiple ways!
But as an artist, too, I find that if I'm cast as an actor I can bring what I've learned as a writer to the table when I tackle the material. I can think about it like, why would the writer do this? And at the same time, if I've made discoveries as an actor working on a different piece, I can bring that to my own writing. Discoveries made in one sphere usually transfer over to the other.
DRC: Tell me more about Hero!
MM: It's about a guy who works in his father's comic book shop. It's sort of like a superhero musical but you're flipping the lens around, so instead of it being about Spider-Man, it's about a guy reading the Spider-Man comic. It's sort of a coming of age story where by the end he learns to see that there are wonders in his own life.
DRC: And it ran this summer at the Marriott.
MM: Yes, we had a successful nine-week run this summer at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater. It's a show that I've been working on with Aaron Thielen for about three years, on and off. We did a workshop of it at Northwestern with the American Music Theatre Project program about a year ago; we had a wonderful cast of students and we were able to make some huge, important changes through that process. A lot of the cast members at the Marriott ended up being from Northwestern, too, so the whole process had a warm Northwestern vibe. We opened in June; it was a surprisingly really successful run, and we're hopeful that it will continue on and have a life beyond that production.
DRC: What's next for you?
MM: Well, we're hammering out the next steps for Hero and meanwhile I've got a new piece that I'm working on for the American Blues Theater, called Joe Hill. It's about the life of the famous songwriter. I've also got some music directing gigs coming up and a couple of acting things.
DRC: So you're keeping busy!
MM: Yep, that's… theatre in Chicago!