The way The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon: The Musical! found its groove is something of a fairy tale. Originally written in 2007 by playwright Don Zolidis as a non-musical stage play for his Haltom High School and North Oak Middle School students, it went on to be performed more than 3,000 times in every state in the union and 27 foreign countries. Its success prompted theater composers to contact him and suggest it be made into a musical.
It’s a natural for an all-out songfest. Based on the enduring, often macabre, stories collected by the German sibling folklorists in the 19th century, The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon is delightfully odd, zany, edgy, and lyrical, and it’s redolent with themes that beg for catchy numbers. Zolidis had tried out a few composers, but “nothing really clicked,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘I really want somebody like Wammo to do the music for this.’ ”
Wammo is a singer, songwriter, and musician who co-founded Austin’s Asylum Street Spankers, a wacky and witty all-acoustic, neo-vaudevillian revue that enjoyed a rather zesty Texas and national run from 1994 to 2011. Zolidis, a Dallas resident who’s now a theater professor at Ursinus College near Philadelphia, was a huge Spankers fan. “Wammo writes really funny songs in all these different styles,” he said. “I felt like his sense of humor would really jell with the sense of humor in the show, and I wanted the lyrics and music to be really funny.”
Turns out the two shared a Facebook friend who put them in touch in early 2013. Wammo, who now lives in Pittsburgh, said they fell immediately into sync: “When we started talking about the music we loved, hated, and grew up with, we both brought up Meat Loaf and [composer] Jim Steinman and how brilliant, funny, horrible, tragic, and incredible the album Bat Out of Hell is.”
Wammo had already been approached a number of times to write music for the theater. “It always seemed like a lot of work for something that may never even get produced,” he said.
Zolidis conquered his skepticism by simply saying, “Google me.”
He has written more than 70 plays for student troupes and professional companies, and though there’s no real telling, he believes he may be “the most produced playwright in American schools.”
He received his Pulitzer nod last year for White Buffalo, a drama based on the 1994 birth of a white buffalo and how it fulfilled Native American prophecy. His success has allowed him to stop teaching at secondary schools. “Not a lot people who write for kids also write for adults, but I do both,” he said.
Zolidis and Wammo began working together in February of last year and had the musical ready to be performed only recently. Although a number of theaters Zolidis works with were interested in presenting the work, both the timing and the playwright’s Haltom High connection made the school the ideal place for the world premiere next week.
Although BillyDave Wammo, to give the artist his full stage name, is the son of one-time Metropolitan Opera star and former Fort Worth Opera general director William Walker, the arias the fat ladies sing are just one of many influences on Wammo’s Spectaculathon songs. “The weird thing is that my father tried to steer me away from any kind of artistic career,” Wammo said.
His initial inspiration was the oft-maligned prog-rock style that he briefly dug as a young teen living in San Antonio in the early 1970s, “when Fragile by Yes was a major bong hit,” he said. “I studied a lot of musicals when I first started working on this, and the rock ’n’ roll genre that really walks hand in hand with and is kind of like a cousin to old-school musicals is progressive rock.”
While prog is heard in a number of songs, the musical runs the gamut stylistically. Rapunzel’s plea, “Let Your Hair Down,” harks back to Peter Gabriel’s airy orchestra sound both with Genesis and in his solo work, and another tune recalls the disco classic “I Will Survive.” Wammo also throws hip-hop, T-Bone Walker-style big-band blues, techno, James Brown-esque funk, and more, including Broadway’s 1950s/’60s golden era, into the mix.
The lyrics are rife with cultural references. Everything from youthful buzz terms like Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and the X-Men to more mature drop-ins like King Lear, Depends adult diapers, and the self-effacing line “we’re competing with Sondheim” (followed by a hearty laugh) imbue the songs with an appeal to kids of all ages. “Instead of digging deep musically and trying to get really complex, I tried to make songs with hooks that would stick,” Wammo said.
With a rock quintet in the pit, the performing cast includes Haltom High alumni and local drama teachers. Some of the alums are students of Zolidis’ who stuck with theater. Others haven’t done a show since high school. “It’s like Mr. Holland’s Opus!” Zolidis joked. “My former kids have come back to do my show!”
Will the new musical created by Zolidis and Wammo be the playwright’s entrée onto the Great White Way? “We’ll see,” Zolidis said cautiously. “That’s not exactly our goal, but it’s not impossible.”
The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon: The Musical!
7:30pm Thu-Fri, Aug 21-22, at Haltom High School, 5501 Haltom Rd, Haltom City. 817-547-6000. $5-10. 817-547-6126.