Musicals are ambitious, and often take years and sometimes decades to write, refine and prepare for the stage. Beginning Friday, Portland-based Snowlion Repertory Company premieres an original musical, “Mesmermized,” that has been an ongoing creative concern since before Snowlion began presenting theater in Portland in 2011.
Astute theater-goers with good memories may recall that Snowlion presented a concert reading of the show as part of the first PortFringe festival in 2012. Seven years later, the fully-staged musical opens Friday in the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, recounting the spellbinding story of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, whom we know today as the inventor of hypnosis.
The part of Mesmer’s story that Snowlion focuses on in “Mesmerized” is a scandal that followed Mesmer when he reported restoring sight in a blind pianist using an invisible force that he called “animal magnetism.”
The musical is set in 1777 Vienna and includes appearances by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Benjamin Franklin and the Queen Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, all of whom Mesmer interacted with in his life. In his work, the doctor believed illness and disease were caused by obstacles to the free flow of an invisible fluid found in the human body and in nature. He came up with various treatments to encourage a harmonious flow, and was denounced as a fraud. Under fire, he left Austria for Paris, where he ran afoul again of the medical community and faced an inquiry of his practices by a commission appointed by the King.
Franklin was among the commissioners who denounced his claims. Mesmer couldn’t prove his theories, but they eventually led to the practice of hypnosis, and many see similarities between what Mesmer preached and modern Chinese medical practices. His theory also gave us the word “mesmerized.”
Margit Ahlin, Snowlion’s producing director, said the timing is right to stage the show, even though the events it recalls occurred more than 240 years ago. The Mesmer story is familiar: A scientist suggests a radical idea and faces resistance from authorities when he tries to prove it. “It’s relevant to today – a society in the grips of upheaval and change grapples with ideas that are threatening to societal stability,” she said.
The musical requires a cast of 14 and extensive costumes and staging, making it the largest and costliest show Snowlion has presented. Ahlin and artistic director Al D’Andrea tapped into two grants that gave Snowlion the resources to stage the show. It received a $5,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation and another $3,000 from the Maine Community Foundation. The grants will help pay artists’ fees for the project.
D’Andrea wrote the book, Ahlin wrote the lyrics using her publishing name, MK Wolfe, and Darryl Curry composed the music. It will be performed with piano accompaniment.
The idea began when Ahlin heard a radio report “that made some oblique reference to a doctor in the 18th century who cured a blind pianist,” Ahlin said. “I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. The best musicals in the world have music as a component of the story already. The fact that this story involved a pianist, I wondered if it would make a good musical.”
She suggested the idea to D’Andrea, who did some research and quickly concluded “this was fertile ground for not just a musical, but a musical with ideas that are interesting to us, about society embracing radical new ideas.”
Ahlin described “Mesmermized” as contemporary musical theater. Among its 20 or so songs, there are several big ensemble numbers as well as several solos and duets.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. May 9 and 10; 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 11; 2 p.m. May 12
WHERE: Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $23, (207) 518-9305 or on Facebook.