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Composer sees theater in new light thanks to 'Queen'

By Mary Houlihan
Staff Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
December 8, 2006

Singer-songwriter Michael Smith is not a novice when it comes to writing music for the theater. He composed the score for Steppenwolf Theatre's Tony-winning production of "The Grapes of Wrath," as well as contributing songs and performing in works such as his one-man show "Michael Margaret Pat & Kate" and Curious Theatre Branch's "Hello Dali: From the Sublime to the Surreal," both staged at Victory Gardens Theater.

But in his newest venture, a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Smith is taking on a larger role by writing songs that are the core of the text that propels the story. It's the first time he's had to tell a complete story through his songs, and the first time he's been responsible for an entire mainstage musical.

"All of this is comparatively new to me at this stage of my career," said Smith, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Steve Goodman and Jimmy Buffet. "In this case, I'm writing songs and finding the right tone to set for each singer. It's the heaviest thing I've ever been involved in."

"The Snow Queen" is one of Smith's favorite childhood fairy tales, and the Victory Gardens project has roots that are 10 years old. It began when theater friends in Colorado staged a version of "The Snow Queen," and Smith offered to write a batch of folk-oriented songs for their production.

"The new songs are glimpses of those old ones," Smith said. "It always seemed there was a possibility of making a record or something larger out of that original work. Andersen's story is totally unpredictable and very sentimental and, at times, very cruel. Everything in it is a surprise and it draws you back again and again."

Smith's old friend, Victory Gardens artistic director Dennis Zacek was interested in staging "The Snow Queen," but it was Smith's wife, Barbara Barrow, who suggested he ask Frank Galati to direct. Smith had worked with Galati on "The Grapes of Wrath," and he jumped at the idea.

It was Galati who brought Blair Thomas and his magical puppet creations to the project. When asked about Thomas' puppets, Smith just laughs. He says his notion of puppets extends only to Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

"I was totally at a loss when it came to envisioning Blair's work on stage. But Frank felt it was the way to go. Of course, he could have said we'll do this with trained fleas and I would have gone along. This experience has opened me up to an entirely new way of looking at theater."

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