Dark and stormy days and nights will fill the stage at Creative Cauldron beginning this weekend when the theater debuts a world premiere musical based on a real 19th century event, “Monsters of the Villa Diodati.”
The title comes from the memoirs of an actor in the show which will star Alan Naylor as “Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Sam P. Ludwig as “Lord Byron” and Caitlin Shea as “Mary Shelley.”
In a summer without sun, it was a world of darkness, covered by grey skies and ashes from a volcanic explosion in Indonesia.
It was 1816 where friends met at a mansion near Lake Geneva, Switzerland (which still exists!) drawn by common interests in composing tales of horror, and it spawned the creations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Vamprye by “John Polidori” (David Landstrom), physician to Lord Bryon and another guest at Diodati.
Also present was “Claire Clairmont” (Catherine Purcell), Mary Shelley’s stepsister, who had a fling with Lord Bryon and bore a daughter he stashed in a convent where she died at the age of five, but that’s another story.
And maybe, another play.
Naylor and Ludwig each won the 2015 Helen Hayes Award for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical,” Naylor, recipient of the Helen Award for his role in Creative’s “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and Ludwig won the Hayes Award for an Olney Theatre production.
The name Stephen Gregory Smith, who wrote “Monsters” and is a Helen Hayes winner himself, will be familiar to Falls Church playgoers since he wrote and directed the popular 2012 Creative Cauldron production, “Cole Porter: You’re the Top!” and he and “Monsters” composer, Matt Conner, wrote the lyrics for the new show.
The duo has collaborated on other productions, including last year’s “The Turn of the Screw” at Creative and “Night of the Living Dead,” a musical based on the 1968 classic of the same name.
One night before a rehearsal, Smith talked about his newest play.
The 1816 event “when stars collided” is “the most famous literary happening ever,” he said. “Two hundred years later and we’re still talking about it. Lord Byron is the biggest rock star on the planet. People dress like him.”
It was a “summer of free love, the 1970s in the 1800s. Percy Shelley did not believe in marriage or monogamy,” Smith said.
It was also a time of a lot of drug use and sexual experimentation, said Laura Connors Hull, Creative Cauldron’s producing director.
The “monsters” in the title are those within us like “the toil of an artist’s creations and the effects on everyone else,” said Smith.
“You have to be responsible for what you say and the damage [it] can create.”
The first night of rehearsal was the night David Bowie died.
“You never know how one life can change your world,” Smith said.
The play is “very literary” with lines from Shelley’s and Lord Byron’s poems, excerpts from Frankenstein and Vampyre and many “delicious details.”
Stopping to chat on his way to rehearsal, composer Conner compared music composition to cooking: At first, you use a recipe and then you start experimenting.
He grew up attending a conservative church near Winchester, Virginia where men sat on one side and women on the other, but there were no snakes. At least, of the reptile kind.
At age eight, Conner taught himself how to play the piano and has never stopped, creating more than 15 works, including “Nevermore” a musical about the life and poems of Edgar Allan Poe.
“The piano is my therapist,” Conner said.
At rehearsal, books on the famous Diodati guests filled a chair, and news clippings about the famous participants lay on a bench for the cast to read.
One news story described the relatively recent discovery at the New York Public Library by a graduate student who found Clairmont’s memoirs including the words “monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery” to describe Byron and Percy Shelley.
Said Hull: The play is “Stephen’s brainchild. It’s a thinking person’s piece.”