Joey Miller, who along with Mitch Magonet wrote Rio: The Musical Photo by Michael Swan

A serious musical you can blame on Rio

  • July 25, 2012

The history of American musical theatre has served up plots and song lyrics so brainless they could make opera blush. But a new Canadian musical set among the homeless children of Rio de Janeiro takes on serious issues as it dances, sings and jokes its way across the stage.

Rio: The Musical is getting a critical test run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival this month. If it passes the test it could wind up playing to New York audiences on Broadway, telling a story of murder, homelessness and family to a samba beat.

“There are certainly frivolous musicals,” veteran musical composer Joey Miller told The Catholic Register. “I save my money.”

From South Pacific’s take on racism to Cabaret’s exploration of Nazi rule, there are plenty of examples of serious theatre in the guise of musicals. Miller and his writing partner Mitch Magonet want to fit their musical into that tradition.

“There has to be a theatricality to it, but it has to be truthful,” said Miller.

Miller and Magonet have worked on Rio off and on for eight years. Getting into both the New York Musical Theatre Festival July 9 to 29 after having already been in last year's National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival Oct. 11 and 12, both in New York, gives their project a certain cachet among new musicals.

Miller frankly admits he and Magonet stole the plot from Oliver Twist. Twelve-year-old Pipio arrives in Rio from Brazil’s poor northeast during Carnival on an impossible quest to find his mother. He falls in among homeless children who steal for an older master thief and he befriends a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship. A murder right off the top sets things in motion.

Musically, Brazil was the right place to set the story, said Miller. A percussionist by trade, Miller has spent decades studying samba, bossa nova, forro, choro and countless Brazilian rhythms.

“They say about Brazilians, without music they can’t exist,” said Miller.

Miller and Magonet use rhythms as leitmotifs, signature music attached to each character.

“It was the music that drove us. It’s like an inspiration,” said Miller.

But Brazil is also right culturally, he said.

“There’s something special about Brazil. It’s the samba, it’s the favela, it’s the whole culture with the importance of family,” Miller said.

Once in the New York festivals, Catholic University of America chose Rio as an ideal challenge for students of its Benjamin T. Rome School of Music musical theatre division. Dark, gritty subject matter set in a very different culture was part of the attraction for Denise Puricelli, Catholic University assistant professor of music. For Puricelli, serious intent fits with a Catholic university.

“One of the things we’re charged to do, actually, is to encourage people to contemplate social ills and contemporary problems,” she said. “It is a question — what kind of material should we do? You can either hide from it and only do things that are very wonderful or you can talk about things that make people stop and ponder... Schools that hide these strong, ugly parts of life are doing the students a disservice.”

Puricelli was musical director for a two-week workshop of Rio. It was opportunity for students to be part of the process as the writers and director edited, pruned and added songs and dialogue.

“For the kids, being able to have the composers right in the room, being able to ask questions from them — it was a great experience all the way around,” said Puricelli.

Crowdsourcing on raised $40,000 to mount a bare-bones production for the NYMF festival, along with $80,000 from a private backer. Very early in its development Mirvish Productions in Toronto workshopped the first act. Miller doesn’t yet know what will happen to the play after the New York festivals. Miller would love to see a full production on stage in Toronto, in New York, even in Rio.

“This is where we turn to prayer,” he said.

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