CHESTER — The Chester Railway Station seems an unlikely venue in which to rehearse a play about wayward souls in Hell's Kitchen, the gritty neighborhood in New York City. But here were actors Guiesseppe Jones, James Barry ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"), and Natalie Mendoza ("Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"), with their director Byam Stevens, working out the intricacies of the sometimes comical, sometimes tragic "Arms on Fire." It will have its world premiere in a run that begins Wednesday at the Chester Theatre Company, where Stevens is the artistic director.
The show's creators, playwright and lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik — perhaps best known as the duo who wrote the Tony Award-winning 2006 musical "Spring Awakening" — also seemed slightly confused by the funky rehearsal space, inside a small museum dedicated to the history of the locomotive station it once was. But the ever-clever Sater quickly came up with the perfect explanation. "It's evocative of the journey taken," he said with a smile.
Indeed, the show concerns the tale of Ulysses (Jones), a reserved factory worker in self-imposed exile, an aspiring singer named Smith (Barry) who barrels like a hurricane into his life, and Ulysses' lost love Josephina (Mendoza), whose memory haunts them both.
Although "Arms on Fire" is premiering this week, Sheik and Sater have been working on the piece together since they first met in 1999. Sater had written a play called "Umbrage" and asked Sheik to provide some music for the lyrics he had included. In 2001, Sheik recorded and released those tunes as an album called "Phantom Moon." The pair went on to work on various projects together and separately, and are happy to be back together for the piece that began their partnership. They revisited the work in early 2010, when Sater decided to try to incorporate the songs more directly into the storytelling of the play.
"One thing Duncan and I have been doing continuously is trying to break new ground, new form in musical theater storytelling," Sater said. "And it just struck me that there might be a way to use the songs in this in a really different and unusual way."
We chatted with Sheik and Sater about the new work, their aspirations for it, and the journey they have been taking together.
Q. What was your original inspiration for the story?
Sater: Byam said something in rehearsal the other day that I found very true. He said that at the heart of every play there's a mystery. And I would say that about this play. There was a fable I wanted to tell, and it was a fable of the streets and of New York. And there was a factory worker whom I knew who lived in a basement apartment, and I used to take him to Buddhist meetings, and I came to know a little about his life. I don't know. Plays are strange, mysterious things. They come from deep places that we don't necessarily understand.
Q. You're not calling this a musical, correct?
Sheik: It's not a musical.
Sater: But it's also not just a play with songs. The songs really serve a story function. They're the sirens' song of memory. It's a story about Ulysses.
Sheik: It's not just found songs that happen to kinda sorta fit the mood. They're definitely written with this story in mind.
Q. So the play came first and, Duncan, you read it and were inspired?
Sheik: Yeah, the play to me was always hilariously funny and great and enigmatic, and it was the first thing I'd read of Steven's. And I'd only met him the day before, so I was kind of nonchalant, "Yeah, give me this play and I'll read it." I read the play and it was instantly gratifying to me in some way, and it reminded me of like a late-'80s "Midnight Cowboy," and I always felt it had that sensibility, and so I felt like it was something I could easily sink my teeth into.
Q. Why the name change from "Umbrage" to "Arms on Fire"?
Sater: "Umbrage" to me was a really evocative title. It had a couple of meanings. But I think I've read a lot more John Milton than most people. [Both laugh.] To me it called up visions of a lost paradise as well as taking umbrage, taking offense at something, and I don't think that's really available to too many people. And at one point — after many people saying it to me — it was actually my agent who said, "You might think about changing that title." So we went through a few titles, and there's a key moment in the play that's about a Buddhist parable about someone lighting their arms on fire, and it seemed to have a lot of emotional resonance for the story that we're telling. And the story is very much about today and how we're living parables, and stories today that have a kind of mythic richness if we see them from that perspective.
Sheik: I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that this idea of lighting your arms on fire is this idea of sacrificing something of yourself to gain some understanding, some wisdom.
Q. Although you have some history with the company, and they have a history of moving works to larger stages, what made you decide the Chester Theatre Company was the right place for the world premiere?
Sater: I have a relationship and a history with Byam that goes back a long time. Byam called me about doing this play, and I said, "Actually it's evolved quite a bit since what you read, and I've incorporated music." He wanted to read it and was very excited and wanted to do it, and it just felt right to me that we would come up here and work on it. It really had to do with Byam and our having a home for this play to put it on its feet and see what we have.
Sheik: And think pieces like this that, I think, are really satisfying for an audience but are not obviously commercial in their form or content, you need to develop them, and that's the great thing about theaters like this, somewhere where you're not under the microscope of New York City. It's a great thing to be able to do it.
Q. Do you have any idea where you would like to see the show next? Do you have aspirations to a larger stage?
Sater: My ideal scenario for this would be that we would do it again at another regional theater and that we would do it in some cool situation in New York, maybe an off-Broadway theater, and I think it could attract a following.
Sheik: There are plays that happen on Broadway all the time that are not necessarily — I don't know, I'm not the best historian of this, but there are things like "Talk Radio" and "Burn This" and "August: Osage County." Not to compare them, but they're not a big musical; they're like a cool play about some weird, interesting subject. There's a way to do it.
Sater: What's more important to me is that the play get out there and reach people. The most profound thing with "Spring Awakening," I'll say this as a Buddhist, I had a determination that we were going to touch the troubled heart of youth around the world with "Spring Awakening," which we began in the wake of the shootings at Columbine. And similarly with this, my aspirations have to do with touching people in different parts of the world. To see the play done in different countries for different audiences, that would be really moving for me.