In "Gretel! The Musical" from Theatre Heroes, the story of "Hansel and Gretel" or the Russian version "Vasilisa the Beautiful" becomes an anthem of female empowerment.
Gretel lives in a town where children mysteriously disappear. After her mother dies and her father remarries, Gretel is sent by her stepmother and stepsister into the woods to steal the flaming skull from the witch Baba Yaga. There the witch teaches Gretel how to face her own fears and stand up for herself.
In the song "Fuel," the witch teaches her to turn all the bad things into fuel, specifically for flying, but she could use this skill for a lot more things, too.
"Remember all the wrongs, every tease, every slight, every joke at your expense, let them lift you into flight," Baba Yaga sings in "Fuel." "Every slap, every slander, every thought of revenge, let it burn just like fire, let it take you higher and higher."
And then this chorus: "Magical memory/the sheer force of will/anger, devastation, it all fits the bill/the frenzy, the fury, the mess and the worry/whatever the tool, you just need fuel."
Gretel listens and becomes a champion of survival. "Rising from this endless sea, weighed down by the gravity, I am learning to survive," Gretel sings in the song "Survive."
The musical has its own story of survival, even after death. It was the vision of Theatre Heroes' co-creator playwright Jason Tremblay, who died from cancer in April 2017. Even while in treatment in the hospital, Tremblay was working on a rough draft of "Gretel," says his wife, Sheila Tremblay. "He was writing for 'Gretel' four days before he died," she says.
The story didn't end with Jason Tremblay's death, though. Fellow playwright Suzan Zeder, who had taught Tremblay at the University of Texas, began to follow the breadcrumbs he left in both the electronic version of the draft and in handwritten notes. Jennifer Hartmann Luck, who is the education director at the Paramount Theatre and had booked Theatre Heroes' previous show, "Call of the Wild," there, became the composer and lyricist, and Noel Gaulin, who was his partner in Theatre Heroes, became the director.
"It's the truest sense of collaboration I've ever seen," Hartmann Luck says.
The musical will make its world debut on Monday at the Paramount Theatre. It's designed for a fourth-grade audience and older, though younger children just need to know that there are a few scary moments.
The story is told with three actors on stage: Estrella Saldana as Gretel, Veronica Williams as Woman and Jason Phelps as Man. Williams and Phelps play all the other roles that come onto the stage. A cellist and guitarist deliver the musical score.
The musical is designed to offer flexibility in how many actors a production uses, just like "Call of the Wild," which was originally a one-man show and has been performed with different numbers of actors as it has toured and been picked up by other companies. "I wanted it to be very tourable," Gaulin says.
The set design of "Gretel" is very simple and asks the audience to use its imagination. In one scene, the witch is teaching Gretel how to fly. Hartmann Luck, who teaches at UT as well, had her theater for a young audience class read the script and tell her what the challenges would be. Every student came back with, "Oh, my gosh, technically it's so difficult," Hartmann Luck says.
But it's not, she says. They use actors, music, screen projections and the audience's imagination to fly. She likens it to the musical "Peter and the Starcatcher" and the way those characters fly, no rigging needed.
"If the stories are great and storytellings are strong, you don't need everything else," Gaulin says.
That's what he found in "Call of the Wild" as well. The two Theatre Heroes creations have a lot in common. "Just as 'Call of the Wild' was about a male adventurer (Jack London), 'Gretel' needs to be a quintessential woman adventurer," Gaulin says. "The center of adventure can be a girl, and she can be a bad (expletive)."
It's a story that is fitting in this time when there is so much discord and people feel powerless, Zeder says. This gives us a young female hero, she says.
"She overcomes her obstacles not because she's a super hero," Zeder says. "She overcomes things because she's smart and resourceful. She's also compassionate and kind."
Gretel makes the right choice. She is given an opportunity to get back at her stepmother and stepsister through trick, but instead she decides to save them. And don't worry, Hansel does make an appearance, though not as you might think.
The musical is asking the question, "How does a strong girl hero triumph over loss, sadness and abuse?" Zeder says. "How does she do that and maintain kindness and compassion?"
Gretel also doesn't get sucked into the princess-needing-to-be-saved-by-a-prince motif that plagues fairy tales. In the original story, there's a goose that is tied up, and Gretel is told she cannot let it go or give water to it. She disobeys and the goose turns into a prince, who then asks her to marry her ... and, of course, they live happily ever after. Instead, Zeder thought there was a better choice. What if the goose was really the long-lost father whom Gretel saves? This was one of those Tremblay breadcrumbs that Zeder later found. In a handwritten note were the words "goose = father." It was as if she had Tremblay's blessing to go forward.
"I think we've always been guided by the spirit of what Jason wanted," Hartmann Luck says. They made decisions by the principle that "Gretel" gets what "Gretel" needs, Hartmann Luck says.
"I've always believed that play itself was bigger than any individual contributions," Zeder says. "That permeated the whole piece."
Sheila Tremblay believes that even though the musical has gone through nine drafts and many changes, it would be recognizable to Jason. He would have wanted "Gretel" to evolve as it needed, Gaulin says. "I have no doubt he would have supported the way 'Gretel' has become herself," Gaulin says.
In their decade of working together on seven different projects, Gaulin says, he and Tremblay were about "how do we create theater that creates a legacy and inspires the next generation of theater?" Gaulin says.
"It's such an incredible piece of theater," Hartmann Luck says.
"It's the power of art to heal and the power of art to inspire long after we're gone," Zeder says.