A new musical, based on Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” comes to Ogden this week in workshop form.
The production, “Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,” is a musical adaption of the 1906 novel, featuring book, music and lyrics by Rob Baumgartner Jr. and Ogden native Nathan Dame.
Camille Washington, co-director of Good Company Theatre, said turning “The Jungle” into a musical is more than just a tall order.
“Tall doesn’t cut it — it’s a gargantuan order,” she said.
Washington’s sister and co-director of the theater, Alicia Washington, studied theater at Weber State University alongside Dame. When Alicia heard about Dame and Baumgartner’s project, she offered the sisters’ Ogden theater as a workshop site, “to help move the musical along.”
Although it’s a novel, Camille Washington says “The Jungle” is basically an investigative piece about the meatpacking industry, so she wondered how anyone could turn it into a musical.
“That’s what intrigued me when Alicia said Nathan was working on adapting ‘The Jungle’ as a musical,” Washington said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? How does that even work?’”
But, Washington says, it does.
Work, that is.
Washington said the playwrights have done a good job of focusing on the human aspects of the novel.
“You can’t get away from the meatpacking stuff, and the disgusting conditions — that’s in there,” she said. “But Nathan and Rob have made it more human by focusing on the characters.”
“The Jungle” tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, a young couple who immigrated from Lithuania and are struggling to make ends meet in the slums of Chicago. Although the novel deals with larger issues like immigration and workers’ rights, Washington says the musical does it in a way that it doesn’t become a socialist rant.
“A musical is a good medium for that, because the musical allows the emotion to come through in a way that if it were a straight play couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching, they don’t shy away from that, but that’s what I like about it. This is an unrelenting kind of tale about what it means for certain people — immigrants — to come into a new country and try to realize the American Dream. And I think it’s a good time to revisit that.”
In an email to the Standard-Examiner, Dame said that he and Baumgartner, like Sinclair, want to shed light on the overt exploitation of workers in America.
“We hope to inspire imaginative sympathy in our audiences, to be conscious of the way we continue to marginalize the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who, right now, are particularly migrant workers and refugees,” Dame wrote. “We must really understand that many people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake are not just those stuck at the borders, but they are our next door neighbors, people we go to church with, school friends of our children, valued members of our community. They are us.”
Dame says he and Baumgartner have been working on their musical for four years, and “as musicals go, we are basically right on schedule.” He said every other well-known musical out there — “Hamilton,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” — did anywhere between five and 10 years of workshops before they opened.
Dame compares the two playwrights’ creative relationship to another famous writing duo.
“We kind of have a Lennon/McCartney partnership, in that there are some songs that only one or the other of us wrote, and many we wrote together, but at some point we’ll each have contributed to every page and measure of the script and score,” he said.
Washington calls the story and music in “Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle” incredible.
“Nathan and Rob are phenomenal composers, and this is just a very carefully considered work and good way to tell this story,” she said.
Because it’s a workshop, Washington says feedback from the audience is encouraged. There will be surveys to fill out, for those willing to offer their impressions, and on Sunday, Aug. 4, the playwrights will be in attendance at a “talk-back” following the performance.
“When people come to see the show, if they’re open to giving their thoughts and impressions, it’s welcome,” she said. “The audience is an important part of the workshop process; that’s where it shows if the musical is successful.”
Although Baumgartner and Dame are based out of New York City these days, Washington believes Ogden is an ideal testing ground for the musical.
“I think Good Company is a good place for this,” she said. “We’re not in the hubbub of New York, so they’re able to focus on the details that have been kind of vexing them.”
Washington says the workshop will be offered in a “concert-reading style,” with 15 actors reading and singing the 17 roles, accompanied by a live band.
“Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle” plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, Aug 2-11, at Good Company Theatre, 2404 Wall Ave., Ogden. It contains adult language and themes, and is recommended for ages 13 and older. Tickets are $20, through www.goodcotheatre.com or at the door.
For more information, call the theater at 801-917-4969.