THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

They are hoping for a storybook ending

Drawings inspire a new musical

From left: Composer Chris Miller, lyricist Nathan Tysen, and librettist and director Joe Calarco created 'The Mysteries of Harris Burdick,' which is having its world premiere in Pittsfield. From left: Composer Chris Miller, lyricist Nathan Tysen, and librettist and director Joe Calarco created "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick," which is having its world premiere in Pittsfield. (Kevin sprague)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2008

Chris Van Allsburg's evocative picture book "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" has fired up the imaginations of many children and adults. But makers of a musical?

"Well, it's taken six years," says lyricist Nathan Tysen, whose musical take on "Harris Burdick" is having its world premiere as part of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab. "I've been fascinated with the book since I got it as a high school graduation present."

Van Allsburg, author of "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji," is renowned for his detailed drawings and adventurous stories. But "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick," published in 1984, is unique. Consisting of 14 unrelated drawings, each with just a title and a one-sentence description, the book includes an introduction in which Van Allsburg states that the drawings were left with a publisher by an author named Harris Burdick. When the publisher expressed interest in reading the stories that went with the drawings, Burdick promised to return with them the next day, but never did.

"It's fascinating where the pictures take your imagination," Tysen says. "If you Google 'Harris Burdick,' you'll come up with stories some third-graders wrote for them. And then there's Stephen King's story for 'The House on Maple Street.' Van Allsburg even published a portfolio edition that lots of schools use for writing exercises, and I hung the drawings up in my apartment in New York and just stared at them for hours."

To transform the picture book into a musical, Tysen recruited composer Chris Miller, his friend and fellow graduate of New York University's musical-theater program, as well as director and playwright Joe Calarco ("Shakespeare's R&J").

"In one version, Harris Burdick was a 12-year-old boy," Tysen says. "In another, we worked some, but not all of the drawings in, but none of it was working."

Last summer, Tysen, Miller, and Calarco were invited to Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theater Lab to work on "Harris Burdick." The trio had enjoyed a hit at the lab in the summer of 2006 with "The Burnt Part Boys," a poignant coming-of-age tale about friends who try to prevent the reopening of a mine that took their fathers' lives. That show moves on to the Vineyard Theatre in New York in March.

"Coming back to Pittsfield was a great opportunity," says Calarco. "I liked some of our other versions, but we weren't being true to the premise of the book, and until we embraced the spirit of the book, it was too much of a struggle."

The trio decided to throw out all the earlier versions except for three songs, and started over.

"The difference was that we incorporated the preface," Tysen says. "We tried for so long to ignore it, because I thought the preface was the organizing principle for the book, but not for a musical. But when we spoke to Chris Van Allsburg, he said, 'Why ignore it? It's part of the story.' "

Having the author's blessing was helpful, Tysen says, but Van Allsburg kept his distance. "He never wanted to stifle the creative process because that's what the book is all about," says Tysen, "but he has definite ideas about who Harris Burdick is."

The musical now opens with a man dropping off the drawings and then goes through 20 years of the life of Harris Burdick, with various drawings representing moments in his life.

"We use the pictures onstage in a variety of ways," says Calarco. "Last year, in the workshop, we had what we called 'a weasel,' which was an easel with wheels, but for this production we'll use that less and have projections. The great thing about that is you can play with the pictures and enhance some of the effects."

How about the music? "Chris [Miller] calls this a chamber jazz musical," Tysen says, "but it's very groove-based."

Finding the groove of the show was trickier than the creative team thought when it began the project, but Calarco says the appeal has always been the dramatic potential behind the drawings. "It's a two-dimensional, monochromatic book that we're breathing life into," he says.

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