Following an initial concert presentation and ensuing developmental lab in 2019, Filipino-American artist Lourds Lane’s SuperYou – a musical for which she wrote book, music, and lyrics – was ticketed for an off-Broadway opening in May 2020 at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
The advance buzz was promising; reviewers praised its “superb story” as “inspirational” and its messaging as “impeccable” and “empowering.”
Then the pandemic struck, shutting down a musical which, ironically, was all about getting on the other side of grief and shining one’s light in a darkening world.
True to the message of SuperYou, Lane and her all-female leadership team – producer Melissa M. Jones, director and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter, and music supervisor Wendy Bobbitt Cavett – pressed on.
One month after its scheduled New York opening, a concert version of SuperYou was performed by Lane and her cast from the back of five pick-up trucks for a socially distanced audience in a drive-in movie theater in upstate New York. Both a performance on June 27 – Helen Keller’s birthday – and a second performance the following day were sold out.
It was the first live theatrical performance after the onset of the pandemic; filmed and distributed by Broadway on Demand in March 2021, it was among the earliest promising harbingers of the coming dawn after our dark, year-long winter of discontent.
The Star Inside You
Beginning tonight, SuperYou takes the stage in Milwaukee; more in a minute on how this Broadway-bound show landed in Cream City. First, a true story, recounted by Lane in numerous interviews:
Beset by grief and in tears, Lane was listening to a song that popped up one day on her playlist; it filled her with energy and hope. “I remember thinking, ‘man, I wish I wrote that song,’” Lane said to Elizabeth Lintonen at the Shepherd Express.
“Then it hit me,” Lane continued. “I did write that song! When I realized my own music could make me feel better, it dawned on me that what I do matters.”
That’s when the lightbulb went off for this violin-shredding rock star: she could write a story featuring a comic-book artist – named Katie in the show – who realizes her own worth when the superheroes she has herself created sing to her. Katie’s superheroes remind her of what one catchy SuperYou songs describes as the star power within each of us.
In short, Katie’s own creations help her overcome the grief that threatens to engulf her; much like Lane herself, she’s rescued by the healing power of art.
It’s a message that immediately resonated with Michael Unger, Artistic Director of Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre.
In early 2013, Unger was one of the producers who staged a benefit concert for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre; it brought Broadway stars and more than 100 Newtown youth together on Connecticut’s Waterbury Palace Theater stage.
Shortly thereafter, Unger and a Newtown parent co-founded NewArts, which would repeatedly forge collaborations between established Broadway artists and Newtown’s young people in theatrical productions driving home that art heals.
Midsummer in Newtown, a documentary chronicling the lives of those involved in the NewArts musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is among the most inspiring testaments to the power of art that I’ve ever seen. Period.
Little wonder that Van Dean, whose Broadway Records recorded and produced NewArts’ musicalized Midsummer, recommended SuperYou to Unger. Unger loved it; he immediately got in touch with Jones, the SuperYou producer, about possibly bringing SuperYou to Milwaukee en route to London and New York. But the timing wasn’t right.
Then The Song of Bernadette, Skylight’s originally scheduled World Premiere Wisconsin entry, fell through.
“I was sitting here feeling very sad about not being able to participate in World Premiere Wisconsin, especially given how important new work is to me,” Unger said. “World Premiere Wisconsin dovetails with one of my initiatives at Skylight, where I’d ideally like to see a new musical every year.”
Unger reached out to Jones again, figuring it didn’t hurt to ask if staging SuperYou in Milwaukee was now feasible.
It also didn’t hurt that Unger’s working relationship with SuperYou director and choreographer Hunter goes back more than a quarter century, when Hunter was a dancer and Unger was assistant director on Steel Pier, the Kander & Ebb musical that reached Broadway in 1997. Hunter was also Unger’s choreographer for the 2015 NewArts production of Liberty Smith before moving on to choreograph School of Rock later that year on Broadway.
This time, the stars aligned; a show bound for London’s West End will receive its world premiere developmental production – think old-fashioned out-of-town tryout – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I spoke on the phone with Unger minutes after he’d emerged from rehearsal; one could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the design (including a video wall, “dynamic” lighting, and fully realized art channeling Katie’s drawings), an “incredible” cast, and Lane (“Lourds is all about care and heart; she hugs every person, every day”) as well as the music and the message.
“SuperYou has soaring musical ballads, which are my jam,” Unger said to me. “The earwormy score carries you, with melodies that are familiar and new at the same time.
“With a lot of musicals, you don’t remember the songs. This is a musical where you’ll walk out remembering all of them,” he continued, while comparing the contemporary sound of Lane’s piece to Six, Hadestown, and Jagged Little Pill.
Having now listened repeatedly to the readily available concept album, I agree: SuperYou sticks with you. But like Unger, what I find equally appealing about SuperYou is its message – as well as the way the boundlessly energetic and upbeat Lane talks about it, whether on Instagram or in a recent interview alongside other WPW artists on TMJ4’s Morning Blend Art Beat.
“The story is about resilience, about getting to the other side of grief, about remembering your worth,” Lane said on TMJ4. “I hope people walk away remembering that their dreams matter, remembering that they already are superheroes, and that when you dim your own light, you dim the light of the entire world. The stakes are that high.”
“This is a musical about believing in yourself, even when the world might tell you otherwise,” Unger said. “When you feel that the world is against you, our society isn’t built in a way to help,” he continued. “But theater is.”
I asked Unger what he hoped audiences would take way from SuperYou, above and beyond those earworms that are destined to inhabit their brains for weeks afterward.
“Hope, grace, love,” he replied. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he added.
“In a world being destroyed by depression, guns, and fear, this musical is the kind of uplift we need,” Unger continued. And then he echoed Lane: “The stakes really are that high.”
Previews of SuperYou begin tonight, with a May 31 opening and performances through June 18, at Skylight Music Theatre, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee. Learn more by visiting https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/superyou/.