Into the Sun

JMU history professor Michael Gubser’s first days of music were as the artful dodger in “Oliver!” but now he’s asking for more.

Gubser has taken a step into a new key of music: He’s written a musical.

“I tried to give up music many times and that never worked, so I gave up giving up,” Gubser said.

He has a long history of making music with his band Chico Motel, which he formed in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley with hallmate Paolo Prandoni. 

The musical, a drama called “Into the Sun” that’s written and composed by Gubser and Prandoni, takes place during World War I, following three British friends who go off to war and one female friend who is forced to stay at home.

“The main plot turn is one character going from, ‘Yay, we’re going to have an adventure,’ to becoming disillusioned with the war,” Gubser said. “That’s the big arc both in the front, in the trenches and at home.”

Gubser and Prandoni hope that this feeling of disenchantment is easily recognized in a contemporary setting.

“There’s one song about shell shock, which is now called PTSD,” Gubser said. “Twenty years ago, no one would’ve talked about that. But now, suddenly it’s a contemporary topic.”

The process started back in 2011 when Prandoni had the idea to turn the poetry of three British war poets, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, into a musical.

“It was the perfect idea,” Gubser said. “I’m a European historian so I’ve taught about these guys for a long time and we could start by setting some of their poems to music. And [Prandoni] is Italian and grew up next to old World War I battlefields. And it was just, like, boom, that’s a perfect topic.”

Since the two are experienced songwriters, they composed the music first.

“For a good year we were developing plot and characters through song,” Gubser said. “One song I wrote, for example, was about this tough woman who doesn’t want to sit at home but wants to go to war and is pissed that her boyfriend and brother get to go to war. And that started the song, ‘Why Can’t I Go Too?’” 

After about a year of writing songs, the duo had enough plot points that they were able to sit down and write the script.

“This was late 2012, and so we had a bad script and some bad music,” Gubser said. “But it can get better. The first draft is always terrible and so we’ve just been revising.”

And revise they did. In 2013 they did an informal reading of the entire musical with the recorded music. This past summer, their musical was accepted to the New York Musical Theatre Festival where it had three readings with professional actors.

“A lot of changes came out of that. And of course it was incredibly exciting to work with actors who had actually been on Broadway,” Gubser said.

And this past weekend Gubser got to test out some of those revisions when JMU students performed readings of “Into the Sun” Saturday and Sunday in the Forbes Center.

“I’ve been to one full rehearsal and I’m going to my second one tonight, but a lot of it’s been without me,” Gubser said. “I just go on with my life and teach my classes and then I think, ‘Right now, someone’s rehearsing my music.’ So that’s been weird. But in a way that’s really neat that my script has this independent life.”

Conor Schulz, a senior musical theatre major, played the lead role of Freddy Siegfried, one of the three friends who goes off to war, and said they changed some things for the reading.

“The purpose is to work on the script and score to make edits to allow the playwright’s vision to be clearer,” Schulz said.

He also thinks the musical is versatile despite being heavy on World War I-era popular culture.

“If you’re not well-versed in the history of World War I, the story is still clear and translates well to any audience, especially young people,” Schulz said. “The characters are all college-aged.”

The JMU performance allowed audience members to voice their opinions and suggestions following the show, including whom their favorite characters were.

“I really enjoyed Mary,” Emily Dwornik, a senior theatre major, said in reference to the major female character who is forced to stay at home but would rather be out in the front lines in France. “But I wanted to see significantly more of her.”

Working with the musical has also given Gubser further insight into the topic he teaches.

“When I teach history, I can talk about the causes of World War I and about what effect it had, but when I’m writing a play I have to think about what it would feel like to be sitting in a trench, and it’s cold, and you thought you were going home two months ago,” Gubser said.

Although “Into the Sun” is still a work in progress, it’s slowly being groomed to gain more traction elsewhere.

“After the JMU reading, our hope is to make some further revisions and then submit it to more festivals and workshops,” Gubser said. “It’s just exciting to be in the game. And as we gain more history, it’s easier to get into festivals since there’s some interest in it.”

Contact Emmy Freedman at freedmee@dukes.jmu.edu.