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  Windy City Times

Joel Derfner's 'Life' story
SCOTTISH PLAY SCOTT
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2013-09-24

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Taylor Mac. Photo by Niall Walker


The program biography for Joel Derfner—the composer of the musical Signs of Life, now on at the Biograph Theater—practically screams out to any LGBT publication: "Interview ME!" Of particular interest, it notes that he once worked as a go-go boy and is also the author of such books like Gay Haiku (2005), Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever (2008) and the just-released Lawfully Wedded Husband: How my Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family.

SEE BELOW for Taylor Mac item.

"I think of myself as a composer and I think of writing books as my day job, which is a horrible day job to have because it's only slightly more stable than being a composer," said Derfner in a telephone interview Sept. 19, the official release date for his book.

Derfner is also the composer of the musical Blood Drive (co-written with Tony Award-winnner Rachel Sheinkin) and he's on the faculty of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. But one high-profile credit missing in Derfner's biography is his participation in the Sundance Channel reality TV series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, which featured Derfner's Iowa marriage to his partner at the conclusion of its first season in 2010.

"While I didn't end up in the red for it, it was not the experience I hoped it would be," Derfner said, noting that his book candidly touches on his reality TV experience since he never signed a non-disclosure agreement. "I was on it with my friend Sarah [Rose], who is also an author, and we were both hoping it would spur interest in our books, but it seems not to have done that. I guess the people who watched [our show] and people who read are two non-intersecting sets of the Venn diagram."

Derfner's career as a composer is getting an extra boost with the Chicago premiere of Signs of Life, which focuses on the artists who were prisoners at the concentration camp Terezin (also known as the Theresienstadt ghetto). The city was set up by the Nazis during World War II as a propaganda ruse largely to fool the visiting Red Cross and other Western powers questioning their treatment of Jews and other persecuted minorities.

"Bizarrely, Terezin became a cultural capital of Europe because the Nazis sent all these artists and intellectuals and all the musicians there," Derfner said, noting that works created there by Jewish artists like Hans Krasa's children's musical Brundibar and Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis (part of Chicago Opera Theater's 2013-14 season) are still performed today.

Derfner became involved with the musical Signs of Life because its commissioner, Virginia Cristle, originally approached composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden) to write it. She in turn prodded Derfner to take it on. While Derfner admits he signed on initially just for the commission check, he says he and his collaborators playwright Peter Ullian and lyricist Len Schiff soon became really close and fell in love with the piece.

"At the beginning of every production, I always say to the actors these characters don't know that they're in the Holocaust. These characters are just in a terrible situation and they're doing the best they can," Derfner said about Signs of Life, which was previously presented outside of Seattle and off-Broadway in New York.

Derfner said he and his collaborators have made thorough revisions to Signs for Life for its Chicago run, and he hopes that the musical will be picked up for licensing to other theaters in the future.

"It's really exciting to watch the piece take new shape and there are amazing actors, it's an amazing director and everybody involved—there's a lot of firepower," Derfner said. "This is in a way, the closest the show has come to be the way we envisioned it to be."

Signs of Life continues through Sunday, Oct. 27, in the Zacek McVay Theater of the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. There are talk-back sessions after select performances, featuring Holocaust survivors and their family members. Tickets are $45-$65. Call 773-871-3000 or visit www.signsoflifethemusical.com .

Welcome Back, Taylor Mac

Famed deconstructionist drag performance artist Taylor Mac is making a return to Chicago this week with the show An Abridged Concert of the History of Political Popular Music at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). It's Mac's first Chicago appearance since the About Face Theatre run of The Young Ladies Of in 2008.

While The Young Ladies Of was an autobiographical father-son piece, Mac's MCA piece is a portion of a planned grand-scale 24-hour project looking at the entire history of popular music in America set for 2015 in New York.

"[The MCA show] is more like a touring version of popular and political music abridged," said Mac during a Skype interview from Ireland where he was performing an 20th century abridgement of the forthcoming 2015 event. "There are 240 songs in that concert, so I thought it would be fun to start learning them all by creating touring versions of the show."

Mac was reluctant to say what the song repertory was for the MCA show, but he said some people will be surprised that he's not focusing on left-wing material.

"The political show is really about all the conservative political songs throughout the history of popular music in the United States," Mac said, describing the performance in a "post-modern neo-romantic" way to "tear the pieces apart and deconstruct it all." "It's more like 'Okie from Muskogee' and all these songs that conservatives have used throughout the years to be political. And I'm not in anyway shape or form a conservative, but I think it's more interesting that way."

Once Mac finishes the Chicago concerts, the artist will return to New York to remount an acclaimed 2012 version of Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan and to appear in a workshop at Classic Stage Company called The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville co-starring Mandy Patinkin (Evita, Homeland) and featuring direction and choreography by Susan Stroman (Crazy for You, The Producers).

"I could have taken a dance class anywhere, but no, I get to work with Susan Stroman!" Mac said. "[Patinkin] is also one of the most generous performers I've ever worked with and we just love singing together. I can't wait for us all to get back together to work on it."

Taylor Mac performs An Abridged Concert of The History of Political Popular Music at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Sept. 27-28, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Tickets are $28 and $10 for students (if available). Call 312-397-4010 or visit www.mcachicago.org .


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