For the playwright, performer, and activist formerly known as Eve Ensler, who now goes by V, the inspiration for her new show “WILD: A Musical Becoming” can be traced to her move to a small town in the Catskills several years ago. For most of her adult life, the author of “The Vagina Monologues” had been an avowed city dweller. But after being diagnosed with uterine cancer and having what she calls “a near-death experience,” she decided to flee urban life and reconnect with the natural world.
“I went through a very shamanic experience where my whole life changed, and I realized my disconnection from nature was actually one of the reasons I got sick,” says V.
Not only did the experience give her a sense of peace and equilibrium, but it galvanized her commitment to the issue of climate change and climate justice. “It made me so aware of how precious this all is and how we have to give everything in our lives to make sure we protect it and don’t destroy what’s feeding us, what’s giving us air, what’s giving us water, what’s giving us our life,” says V, who founded V-Day, a global organization that seeks to end violence against women and girls.
So when V was approached by Tony Award-winning Broadway star Idina Menzel (“Wicked,” “Rent,” the “Frozen” films) about the possibility of collaborating with hit-making pop songwriter Justin Tranter on a new musical project, she leapt at the chance. “I was like, ‘The only thing I want to write about right now is climate change.’ Because really what else should we be thinking about?”
The resulting show, “WILD: A Musical Becoming,” receives its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center Sunday through Jan. 2. Menzel will star in the show through Dec. 23, with a yet-to-be-named actress taking over for the rest of the run.
The three artists, along with Tranter’s songwriting collaborator Caroline Pennell, began writing the musical at V’s farmhouse upstate three years ago, and the bucolic setting influenced its creation. “Letting the presence of this place marinate us and cook us and embrace us has been so critical to what the show has become,” V says.
Structured as a fable, the show is set in the small town of Outskirtsia, where Bea (Menzel) is struggling to hold onto her family farm while trying to connect with her passionate teenage daughter, Sophia (teen TV star YDE). With her farm facing financial ruin, Bea seeks a lifeline and considers leasing her land to an energy extracting company. Her daughter, with whom she already has a fraught relationship, isn’t pleased. “The mother is just trying to survive and has mouths to feed. But the daughter sees a world where all the mouths can be fed, and we don’t have to do damage in the process,” says Tranter, who lived in Boston in the late ‘90s and early 2000s while studying at Berklee College of Music.
Other characters include Sophia’s spirited best friends Forte (Paravi Das) and Possible (Luke Ferrari), and Oak (Brittany Campbell), a caring science instructor who instills in her students a love for the Earth and an awareness of the threats posed by climate change. “These beings come to town to offer the adults a way out, but in the minds of these youth, that could potentially destroy everything,” V says. “So the children resort to extreme actions, and their passion gives them powers they never knew they had.”
Their desperation to make their parents see the urgency of the climate crisis speaks to today’s generational divide, says ART artistic director Diane Paulus, who’s directing the show. “In our musical, parents and children are equally concerned about the future, equally concerned about paying the bills and survival,” she says. “But the young people are saying, ‘I don’t want the future that you’re trying to hold onto.’ ”
Deciding to tell the story in the form of a magical fable was a lightbulb moment for its creators. “It’s almost impossible to talk directly about what’s going on right now. It’s all too awful and extreme. Reality feels less believable than fiction at this point,” says V, who chronicled her cancer battle in her play “In the Body of the World” at the ART in 2016.
For the songs, Tranter, Pennell, and guitarist Eren Cannata tapped into the passion and urgency of young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement. As an openly queer kid at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in the ‘90s, Tranter acknowledges that they, too, were once “an accidental teenage activist,” spearheading an AIDS benefit variety show where students wrote scenes and performed songs. “It’s that beautiful teenage delusion where you think you can change the world, and then you maybe don’t change the world but you change a little part of it,” says Tranter.
Today, Tranter has become one of pop music’s most in-demand songsmiths, helping write such mega-hits as Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Good for You,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” and Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries.” But to create the sounds for “Wild,” Tranter turned to their love of folk music, in particular the acoustic stylings of Patty Larkin and Patty Griffin. “That’s what I listen to in my spare time. I used to make fun of my dad for just listening to his favorite albums from high school and college, and now here I am at 41 doing the same [expletive] thing,” Tranter says with a laugh.
The sonic palette of “WILD,” though, draws from a wide array of influences, from soaring, folk-pop ballads to foot-stomping, hook-laden pop anthems.
Last year, Paulus suggested to her collaborators that “WILD” could be “fast-tracked” if they didn’t follow a traditional development path. “This story needs to be heard now,” she says. “Like yesterday.”
To speed up the process, it is being presented in a stripped-down format with a set that reuses the risers and runways from the ART’s other fall shows, minimal design bells and whistles, and vintage clothing that’s been repurposed and reworked. “We’re thinking about regenerative practice and what it means to be a green theater,” Paulus says. “And when you do shows that take on this topic, the gauntlet is thrown down, and it’s like, are you living the values not only of your institution but what the show itself is proposing?”
Indeed, the bare-bones staging dovetails with the musical’s message: The need for humans to imagine a different, more sustainable world. “We know our patterns, we know the damage and the harm we’re doing to the planet and our future,” Paulus says. “So how do we change? And the first step of that change is a consciousness shift, a willingness to consider changing the paradigm.”
Watching a “WILD” rehearsal that included members of the Boston Children’s Chorus last month was “deeply moving and powerful,” V says, because they were “teenagers singing about their future.”
“I hope audiences will be awakened to the magic inside them. And when we awake, then we begin to see that we are capable of transforming human consciousness and changing our destinies.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
WILD: A MUSICAL BECOMING
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Dec. 5-Jan. 2. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org/WILD