It's purely coincidental that two timely new musicals about trans and gay service members in the U.S. military throughout history are about to play next door to each other.
The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier explores the life of its title Civil War hero, who could arguably be described as a trans person today ( performances begin Aug. 31 at Stage 773 ). Meanwhile One Thousand Words is a musical that uncovers the fictionalized story of a gay soldier during World War II ( it begins performances Aug. 30 at Theater Wit ).
But what also ties the two shows together is that both were featured in past lineups of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival ( CMTF ), which was founded in 2014 by Underscore Theatre Company. One Thousand Words played the 2015 CMTF in a semi-staged production at the Den Theatre, while The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier was presented in staged-reading form during the 2016 festival at the Richard Christiansen Theater in Victory Gardens' Biograph Theater.
"It's exactly what we hoped for," said Underscore artistic director Alex Higgin-Houser on seeing two former CMTF shows go on to receive full-scale productions.
"We started Underscore so we could do new musicals and to give a place to grow the musical theater community in Chicago," Higgin-Houser said. "From that grew the Chicago Musical Theatre Festivalit has become such a central component of our mission."
For the creators of both One Thousand Words and The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier, participating in the CMTF proved to be invaluable in getting their shows up on their feet and to see where changes were necessary.
"It was exactly what One Thousand Words needed at that moment," said Louisiana-native playwright and lyricist Michael Braud, who co-created the musical with composer Curran Latas.
"We were able to see what worked and what didn't work with audiences," said Braud, adding that the musical's central abrasive journalist character now stumbles upon the gay angle to his assigned story rather than reluctantly taking it in the first place.
According to Braud, the networking that came out of the CMTF especially proved to be artistically fruitful. Many of the musical's artistic personnel assembled for the CMTF run of One Thousand Words kept in touch to later found Theater Faction, a new theater company now launching its inaugural season.
Whole scenes and songs were still unwritten and only described at the 2016 CMTF reading of The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier. Yet, the musical's co-creators, Jay Paul Deratany ( book ) with Joe Stevens and Keaton Wooden ( music and lyrics ), still were able to draw from the readings to improve and complete it.
"In the year since the festival, we've been working on it pretty consistently," said playwright Jay Paul Deratany. "We've got a lot of new songs and a lot of great stuff coming up."
Produced by Permoveo Productions in association with Pride Films and Plays, The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier divides up the historical title role with some notable star power. During the Civil War scenes, trans singer/songwriter Dani Shay ( The Glee Project 2, America's Got Talent ) stars as the young Albert Cashier ( who was born Jennifer Hodgers ). Meanwhile Broadway veteran Katherine Condit ( Chess, A Chorus Line ) plays dementia-suffering Old Albert in scenes set in 1915.
Since it takes so long for musicals to write and develop, Deratany said he had no idea that The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier would become so timelyespecially on the heels of the current U.S. president's attacks on trans service members in the military.
"Trump's tweets are so outrageous and so insulting to all those people who served or are currently serving. People who are volunteering to be in our militarynot drafted." Deratany said. "What Trump is doing is dividing us based upon our differences rather than uniting us on our commonality."
And as for the CMTF itself, the fact that there wasn't one this summer doesn't mean that it has fallen by the wayside. Higgin-Houser said the CMTF will return in February 2018. In the meantime, he suggests that adventurous audiences who seek out new musicals should check out the former CMTF shows The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier and One Thousand Words.
"With these shows, it was very clear from the very beginning that their authors had an incredible passion for them," Higgin-Houser said. "I'm so thrilled to see these productions happening."
The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier runs from Thursday, Aug. 31, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Previews go through Sept. 3 with an official press opening 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6. Regular run performances are 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Previews are $30. Regular run tickets are $40; call 773-327-5252 or visit AlbertCashierTheMusical.com .
Theater Faction's One Thousand Words plays from Wednesday, Aug. 30, through Sunday, Sept. 17, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $17.50 to $27.50; call 773-975-8150 or visit TheaterFaction.org .