Tina Landau Dives Into a Deathless Future in Zack Zadek's New Musical

The acclaimed director treks to Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals to helm a show about ordinary lives, extraordinary circumstances, and family road trips.

In the coming year, Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals is slated to present productions of three new musicals in its Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. With performances beginning today, Zack Zadek's Deathless, an intimate family drama set in the not-too-distant future, kicks of the venue's season.

Featuring a cast of five (Johnny Shea, Jennifer Damiano, Sean Allan Krill, Jessica Phillips, and Kelli Barrett), director Tina Landau (The SpongeBob Musical) describes the new show as "a beautifully crafted intimate, haunting family story about loss and healing that takes place in a world completely recognizable as our own."

"Except," Landau continues, "for one very large fact: a cure for death has been discovered and made available to the world — so people have the option of choosing whether to live forever or not."

Director Tina Landau in rehearsal for Deathless.
Director Tina Landau in rehearsal for Deathless.
(© Diane Sobolewski)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me more about the show.
One of the things that's so wonderful about what Zack has done is the characters and the circumstances they find themselves in are so realistic and naturalistic and grounded. There's this one giant leap of imagination, but it kind of makes it all very believable and immediate.

In the story, a father and two daughters have just recently lost the mother of the family. But the father and the one daughter, along with her best friend, decide to go on a road trip to visit Niagara Falls, where they went yearly with the mom. They pick up the second daughter on the way. The story is really about what happens to these people as they contemplate notions of permanence and impermanence and if and how they want to continue living in light of the loss of their mother and wife. So it's a very beautiful, very funny, and very heartbreaking tale about real people and small lives and an extraordinary circumstance, set against a very expansive backdrop.

How does the musical format serve this unique story?
It’s really interesting because the other day in rehearsal, Zack said, "You know, I think of this most often as a play," and it really feels like that working on it. The way Zack has integrated the music is very seamless with what is sung and what is spoken. The music kind of makes emotional and logical sense in a variety of ways, one of which is that we get to take the journey with the lead character, Hayley, one of the daughters, from a very interior point of view. So the music takes us inside these characters. There's also the music of the American landscape and of the quintessential road trip. You know as you're driving in a car and look out the window and you see the landscape moving by, there's kind of an internal soundtrack that accompanies that act, and I feel like that's what the core of this music is. It's the music of a journey more so than it's a bunch of numbers with song and dance.

Johnny Shea, Sean Allan Krill, Jessica Phillips, Jennifer Damiano, and Kelli Barrett in a promotional image for Goodspeed's Deathless.
Johnny Shea, Sean Allan Krill, Jessica Phillips, Jennifer Damiano, and Kelli Barrett in a promotional image for Goodspeed's Deathless.
(© Adrien Broom)

What stands out for you about Zack's writing?
When I first was asked about doing the piece I got a demo of a couple songs, and I literally decided I want to do within about 10 or 12 seconds of putting on the first song. His music is heartfelt and accessible but it's also very contemporary and hip and sophisticated. It just has a fresh sound and I am always drawn toward music in the theater that has such singularity. It feels of the world now. It feels not like a rock pop Broadway score. It feels like an authentic kind of indie punk rock album. That was really the first thing that drew me to it, were these songs that felt so unique yet accessible.

The other thing I find is really unique about it is that he is able to juggle the very small, prosaic, mundane world of human interaction with very large majestic timeless questions. The way that scale plays in this between the prosaic and the poetic is very powerful and he's able to do both and weave them throughout the piece.

What are the benefits of directing a new work?
It's being in the room in the moment — getting your hands dirty, playing with the clay, as it were. It's very much about being with someone and going through the experience of seeing something birthed. It's daily and continually showing itself to us and it's thrilling.

Tell me about the experience of working at Goodspeed.
You can't underestimate the good it does to be able to rehearse surrounded by trees and sky instead of the, you know, concrete and buildings and garbage, particularly on a show like this that's so much about these characters' relationships to natural wonder in the world and Niagara Falls. Right outside the rehearsal room there's literally a waterfall that goes into a stream. We're working on this piece surrounded by the elements that constitute the core of the show, so that feels very special.

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Closed: July 2, 2017