This summer in Chicago is bringing at least four new musicals with high hopes. The first, “Skates,” had a rough debut with mostly negative reviews and closes Sunday. But coming down the pike are “Life After” at the Goodman Theater, which opens Wednesday, “It Came From Outer Space” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, officially opening June 30, and “The Devil Wears Prada,” of which Broadway in Chicago is hosting the out-of-town tryout with an opening night slated for Aug. 9.
One expected show is missing from that list: “The Outsiders,” the musical based on the 1983 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. Following issues with scheduling, the show’s commercial producers chose to not debut at Chicago’s Goodman Theater but at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego instead. That opened up a summer slot at the Goodman for a new musical. One was available due to a cancellation at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, all part of the musical chairs caused by COVID-19.
“Life After,” a new musical featuring book, music and lyrics by Britta Johnson and starring the Broadway performers Samantha Williams and Paul Alexander Nolan, is perhaps the most unusual of those projects. The piece, which began life at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2016, had a well-received 2017 run at Toronto’s Canadian Stage and a US premiere in 2019 (pre-pandemic) at the Old Globe Theatre.
It’s about a 16-year-old girl coping with the death of her father. And, as you might expect, given the topic, its creator draws from her own experience.
“The show is about a young woman who has lost her father,” Johnson says. “She has to reckon with a major loss, to learn how to cope with grief and find a container for it.”
As she describes the piece, Johnson, 31, makes it sound somewhere between “Fun Home” (albeit with benevolent parents) and “Dear Evan Hansen.” The piece is Canadian and follows such prior Canadian musicals as “Come From Away” and “Ride the Cyclone,” not to mention Leslie Arden’s resonant and beautiful “The House of Martin Guerre,” which the Goodman debuted in 1996. A casual listen to a small portion of the score also suggest a musical style in the distinguished realm of Adam Guettel or Dave Malloy.
Johnson comes from an arts family and grew up in the most theater-friendly town in North America: Stratford, Ontario. It’s home to two world-famous institutions: Justin Bieber and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Both of Johnson’s parents were pit musicians who played brass for the musicals at the theater, along with other gigs and, she says, her life was marked by what shows were playing at the time (“I was born during the run of ‘Carousel'” ”).
And not only was Johnson’s home filled with musicians, her father also was a composer, a skill he passed to his daughter. But he died from cancer while Johnson was only 13. Therefore, she says, she had to “come of age through grief.”
Johnson, who has studied classical composition, describes the show’s score, orchestrated for strings, as “living in a chamber music” kind of sound, but with digressions into pop and other broadway-friendly forms. “But I always fight for a good melodic hook,” she says.
Her composing and writing career, she says, began with a musical she wrote while at high school in Stratford, designed to protest the arrival of Walmart to the small town, threatening its beloved collection of its local retailers. The show was produced at the Avon Theatre, run by the festival. And there were flyers all over town. “I guess the town,” she says, dryly, “was charmed. But it didn’t stop Walmart.”
“Life After” also dates back to Johnson’s high school years, if only in embryonic form. She’s been working on the piece for a dozen years.
The show is getting an entirely different production at the Goodman (Annie Tippe now directs) and the cast has changed too. Johnson says that she’s hoping that she is hoping this will be the official production moving forward, incorporating the revisions she has made for Chicago.
Johnson says that the work incorporates some of the absurdity of that time of her life, especially how other well-meaning people reacted to a girl in mourning for her dad. “There is comedy to be found in people not knowing what to do with you,” she says.
“Life After” is now in previews at runs through July 17 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800 www.goodmantheatre.org. “It Came From Outer Space” is slated for June 22 to July 24 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier; 312-595-5600 www.chicagoshakes.com. “The Devil Wears Prada” runs July 19 to Aug. 21 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 www.broadwayinchicago.com.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.