Posted by Heidi on March 26, 2008
Ever wonder what ensemble members look for when choosing a story to turn into a song? Or what they are doing when not working with BOM? Executive Director Heidi Thompson Saunders recently talked to Michael Mahler, who has been a monkey since soon after graduating from Northwestern in 2005.
Mike’s last bio in a BOM program was “Michael Mahler thinks his life would make a great ‘House’ episode”, which doesn’t quite cover everything there is to know about him. Here’s a more complete theatrical biography:
Michael Mahler hails from Minnetonka, Minnesota. At 17 he became the youngest composer ever published by GIA Publications, the nation’s largest Catholic liturgical publishing company. He has since released five recordings of liturgical songs. Michael earned his BS in Theatre at Northwestern University, where he wrote about 50 songs for the annual Waa-Mu Show. Since then he has contributed music, lyrics, and/or book to: The American Dream Songbook (Next Theatre Company); The Adams Conglomerate High School Presents…Tales of the 8th Grade (NY Fringe Festival); Will and Bill (Lakeshore Theatre, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts); A Christmas Carol (Provision Theater Company); Barenaked Lads (Bailiwick Theatre); Cinder Edna (Stages Theatre Company); and others. His musical reviews, “5 to 9” and “Moving Forward, Looking Back” (both co-conceived with Jessica Redish) have been performed at Northwestern, St. Olaf College, and The Beechman Theater in NYC. Michael’s songs have been sung in various songwriter showcases in both New York and Chicago, including the National Alliance for Musical Theatre New Works Summit and the MAC/ASCAP Songwriter Showcase. In 2006, his song “That’s When I Miss You” won 1st prize in the Great Lakes songwriting contest. Michael teamed up with Alan Schmuckler (also a member of Barrel of Monkeys) to write How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?, a critically acclaimed original family musical that premiered at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. With Alan, Michael is the co-music director/arranger of the Chicago Sound Connection, a contemporary a cappella group touring with Brenner productions. Michael is currently working with David H. Bell and Buddy Farmer on Knute Rockne - All American,, a musical based on the life of the famed Notre Dame football coach, which will premiere at Indiana’s Theatre at the Center in April 2008.
As an actor, Michael was most recently seen in Forbidden Broadway: SVU! at the Royal George Theatre. Before that, he created the title role in Joe! The Musical at Chicago Dramatists. Michael won the Jeff Citation for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Benjy Stone in the Bailiwick Theater’s production of My Favorite Year. He was also nominated for his turn as Sydney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success at Circle Theater. Other favorite roles include The Balladeer in Assassins (Porchlight), and Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Noble Fool). Chicago credits include Shenandoah, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Treasure Island (Marriott Lincolnshire); Urinetown (Mercury); Plaid Tidings (Drury Lane Watertower); The Nervous Set (Stages Festival); A Christmas Carol and Cotton Patch Gospel (Provision). Michael is a proud member of Actor’s Equity, ASCAP, and (of course) Barrel of Monkeys Productions.
HTS: You joined BOM soon after you graduated from Northwestern. Why were you interested in BOM?
MM: I was a 4-year Griffin’s Tale* member at Northwestern, so I came to see Barrel of Monkeys perform while I was an undergrad. I loved the music, the energy, the way everybody was so supportive of everybody else, the way the keyboard players were jumping up and taking part in the stories. What I loved most was how true they were to what the children wrote; how they honored the original vision and intention of the young authors. When I moved to Chicago after graduating, I knew I wanted to be a part of such an amazing company with such an important mission.
*Editors note: Griffin’s Tale is a Northwestern University theater company that adapts and performs stories mailed to them by elementary school students. BOM’s co-founders were members and founded BOM in part to extend the GT model to underserved Chicago communities. Many current BOM ensemble members are also Northwestern and Griffin’s Tale alumni.
HTS: What do you look for when choosing a story to adapt into a song? What do you think is the most important thing to remember during the adaptation/development process?
MM: When looking to adapt a story into a song, I’m usually drawn to the stories with the most sincerity. I think for a song to work, even a satirical song, it needs to be grounded in some sort of real honest feeling. So stories that are either really emphatic or sincere usually appeal to me. I also love, whenever possible, to use the stories word-for-word as lyrics, because try as I might, I can never find a better or more interesting way to state things than the way the kids wrote them at first.
HTS: What is something that surprises you about Barrel of Monkeys?
MM: How versatile and brave the ensemble is! It seems like everybody, even if they’ve never written a song before, has no qualms about diving in and trying their hand at songwriting. Or playing instruments — in the poetry show this year I got to write flute and clarinet parts for a song, along with piano and guitar. How awesome is that?! It’s such an incredible group of people to get to play with, and we’ve got the best source material in the world (the kids’ stories) to work on together.
HTS: What is the hardest thing to explain about being part of Barrel of Monkeys?
MM: It’s sometimes hard to explain to my girlfriend why I’m always so sweaty after rehearsals and shows :) It’s a huge blast trying to reflect the joy and exuberance the children put in their stories, but it’s also a lot of work!
HTS: How does your work with other performance companies inform your work with Barrel of Monkeys and vice/versa?
MM: I think as an artist, you’re constantly finding new influences and bringing those influences to whatever you’re working on. When I was doing Forbidden Broadway, I was amazed at how much the Barrel of Monkeys school of throw-yourself-out-there-and-try-something helped me. And vice-versa; working on Forbidden gave me some new confidence and new ideas to try out when adapting stories.
HTS: What do the kids say to you after the school shows? Do they generally approve of the adaptations?
MM: Absolutely. I have two favorite vignettes so far. One was after the poetry show this year. I found out that this really sweet poem I’d adapted into a song by an anonymous poet was written by a boy who was kind of a “tough guy.” He had written “Anonymous” instead of his name on the poem because he didn’t want the other kids to know he’d written it. And the poem was so beautiful.
Another was from last year. I adapted this story called “My Happy Remember” into a song. It was a simple story about a girl and her grandpa and how he always told her how special she was. Afterwards, the author said she was so happy her “heart exploded.” How cool is that?