Interview: It’s All In The Family- An Interview with Oedipus Rox! Co-Creators Thom Huenger and Sarah Shulman

Oedipus! TheatreBloom knows something you don’t know! And here in this exclusive interview with Co-Creators Thom Huenger and Sarah Shulman, we’re going to tell you anyway! We’re going to tell you all about how this electrifying rock opera musical came to exist on the stages of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre and what drove the Greek Tragedy to bleed its veins into the world of musical theatre.

Thank you Thom and Sarah for giving us your time to talk about this exciting project! If you could give us a quick introduction and tell us what of your recent work readers might recognize, we’ll get underway!

Sarah Shulman: I’m Sarah Shulman, I wrote book and lyrics for Oedipus Rox! What have I done? My show at the MET (Maryland Ensemble Theatre) was Don Q, which was an adaptation of Don Quixote. I did a quick little kids show, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and Robin Hood: Occupy Sherwood. I also did The Young Olympians and the Most Amazingly Awesome Adventure Ever. I did book and lyrics for all of those.

Julie Herber (left) as Jocasta and Jack Evans (right) as Oedipus in Oedipus Rox!
Julie Herber (left) as Jocasta and Jack Evans (right) as Oedipus in Oedipus Rox! Joe Williams

Thom Huenger: I am Thom Huenger, I’m the composer and lyric writer for Oedipus Rox! I’ve written music for many shows at the MET, original and otherwise. I did music and lyrics with Sarah for The Young Olympians. Also Robin Hood: Occupy Sherwood. Those are the two other originals that she and I have worked together on. I’ve did music for the adaptation of Hee-Haw we did called The All New Grand Old Hee-Haw Hootenanny Jamboree. I actually got my band, Silent Old Mtns, to be the house band for that show.

Sarah: He did Antigone too.

Thom: Oh yeah. Company Member Reiner Prochaska wrote an adaptation of Antigone and I did the underscoring for that.

How did you two come together as a creative duo?

Thom: That was Young Olympians, right?

Sarah: Yeah. We’re old friends. We lived together for two and a half years.

Thom: We really became friends working on our first show.

Sarah: Yeah, we knew each other, but we only kind of knew each other from other things and shows.

Thom: A Clockwork Orange that was our first show together. That was my first main stage show with the MET.

Sarah: I was writing the show, Young Olympians, for Fun Co (MET’s children’s theatre Fun Company) and Julie (Co-Artistic Director of MET and Director of MET’s Fun Company, Julie Herber) and I decided we wanted it to be a musical. She assigned Thom to it. And then he also ended up being in the show. That was our first thing, we ended up living together, we’re buddies now, and we write a bunch of stuff together.

How did you guys decide that Oedipus was going to be the next project to come forth from the creative duo of Sarah and Thom?

Thom: Well…

Sarah: That’s actually a funny story.

Thom: I have a song that’s the first thing that you hear in the show. “Oedipus! We know something you don’t know!” I wrote that when I was in the 11th grade for an English project. That was like 12 years ago, I think.

Sarah: One night we were just sitting on our couch and he’s playing all this stuff, like this techno music stuff from when he was younger, and he just happened to come across that song. I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we wrote a musical called Oedipus Rox instead of Oedipus Rex?

Thom: That was totally my idea. She’s telling the story wrong.

Sarah: I don’t think so. But it was his song that started it all. And it sat like that for a really long time. We always kept trying to do it, but then what ended up happening was The Young Olympians went from being a one and done show to being a show that we could not seem to keep not doing.

Thom: Even if we didn’t want to do it.

Sarah: And then Robin Hood happened, then we went to New York, and finally about a year ago we were able to get serious about it because the MET was going to do it.

Thom: What also happened was I went to graduate school. Well I started graduate school, I’m in my last semester now. And that sort of around the time where I was like, “I need a graduate thesis composition…how about Oedipus?” That’s when we started to put things in motion. We at MET vote on all of our shows for each upcoming season. We put Oedipus on the ballot and everyone was like, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” If it was up to Tad (MET Artistic Director Tad Janes) we would have done it last season.

Sarah: See the plan was to do it then but then I went to Texas for about a year so that kind of put things on hold for us. And then Thom’s first year of grad school was insane. So it wasn’t very practical for us to try and write a full-fledged musical with me in Texas and him in grad school.

Thom: In hindsight, it wasn’t very practical—

Sarah: — at all to write a full-fledged musical while he’s in grad school.

Thom: It’s been really hard. I wish that going to grad school was just writing music. But it’s not.

Sarah: It’s been a really grueling and insane process for both of us. I run my own business and work a full time job. Finding the time to actually sit down and write a play was definitely a daunting task.

Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration to get these amazing lyrics off the ground, since you guys both contributed to the lyrical creation of the show.

Sarah: We have a pretty even partnership. I’m not a very musical person.

Thom: When it comes to the lyrics, there are some things in there where I took exactly what Sarah wrote and used them. Then there are some things in there that are just mine. And then a lot of it is—

Sarah: A conglomeration.

Thom: Yeah. Sarah will have written some stuff and I’ll look at it and I’ll pull certain words, or I’ll change certain words.

Sarah: I think the reason that it works so well for us is because that we trust each other. We don’t have an ego in it. If Thom takes something I’ve written and completely alters it, I don’t throw a hissy and get upset. And Thom can look at something I’ve written and say that it’s perfectly fine, he doesn’t feel the need to change it. Sometimes he has to cut out some syllables but he doesn’t need to change the song. There’s some stuff in there where it’s pretty much exactly what I put in the script and then there’s other stuff where it’s just the concept I put in the script and Thom took my concept and turned it into a song.

Jack Evans as Oedipus in Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Jack Evans as Oedipus in Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Thom: There will be an acknowledgement when I get the final version of the score printed up. Jack Evans, who plays Oedipus, he and I co-wrote the lyrics for “Digging”, which is Antigone’s song. Also too, throughout the whole process, this is a new musical, there’s no recording, no one has ever heard it before. Every now and again we’d be rehearsing and somebody would raise their hand and say, “You know, if we change this word to this word it’s easier to sing.” And we would do it.

Sarah: We workshopped songs before we got into rehearsal. We were tweaking lyrics all the way up to the very start of rehearsals.

Thom: And we’ll probably continue to tweak them.

Sarah: Yeah, when this show closes there’s going to be a revision process so that we can then continue to let the show grow.

Thom: This is the first full-length musical I’ve ever composed. And it’s the first of our three projects where I’ve actually composed out and written out the score.

Sarah: Everything else has just been recorded tracks.

Thom: I teach voice lessons, and I always wondered why when looking at a score edition or listening to the recorded version why the lyrics were sometimes different.

Sarah: We now know why.

Thom: It’s because at one point that show was where Oedipus is right now. It was brand new and still being worked through. This show is brand new, and it really is a group effort.

You would say the cast has helped get the ball rolling with the project?

Sarah: Absolutely. The cast has just been incredible. It really is an ensemble effort.

Thom: And the lights. And the costumes.

Sarah: People say to me all the time, “So that means you’re making money off of this show?” And I say, “No. Not at all.” And they ask “What? Why not?” And I explain that you have to look at it like this. I came to the theatre with a project. They gave me a stage, they gave me a set, they gave me a director. They gave me cast and costumes. And then they said “Hey, why don’t you join us and sit in for rehearsals and give us your opinion as well.” As a writer that’s almost impossible to find. That’s what the MET gives us. It doesn’t just give us a place for our work, it allows us to be a part of the process. I might not be taking home a paycheck, but I know so many writers and composers that would kill for that opportunity. That’s what the MET does for us.

Thom: I totally second that. It’s amazing what they do. I was talking with a friend once who did Summer stock at some big huge theatre. And he said to me, “You know, Thom, there are other theatres out there with much bigger budgets and steadier paychecks. Those places have someone for every job that needs to be done.”

Sarah: As opposed to we all wear four hats.

Thom: And I said to him, “That’s great, man. But in how many of those places can I raise my hand and say ‘Hey, I want to do this original musical. We don’t have a script or any of the music yet, but can we go ahead and put that on the main stage?’ And have them even consider it let alone say yes.” Because the MET does that.

Sarah: I’m 30, or I’ll be 30 in a month. I wrote my first show, Don Q, how long ago was that? Five or six years ago?

Thom: 2011…no 2010.

Sarah: I was just this young person at the theatre. I’d been there three or four years. They had no reason to trust that I could sit down and write a play. But they did. And in that time I’ve now written four. I’m already starting to write on the fifth, that’ll be happening this summer. They provide an outlet that is an incredible outlet to have, and the trust that they put in us is pretty incredible too.

Thom: The people at the helm at the MET, Tad Janes, Julie Herber, Gené Fouché, they are in the business of building work.

Sarah: It was like when you were at the show the other night, Mandy, and when you asked Tad where they found me and he said they grew me. They did. I came in at 16 and they’ve turned me into what I am today. It’s kind of this ingenious method of getting these young people involved because then we provide and create for the theatre. They grow us into exactly what they need us to be to create for the theatre. You know, Thom came in to do some piano stuff for A Clockwork Orange. And here he is, how many years later, composing a full-length musical for them.

Thom: My actual first involvement with the MET was playing guitar for Tad’s original musical, which is the music of The B52’s called Planet Claire.

Do you guys have a favorite song or song that really speaks to you?

Sarah: From Oedipus? I have several. I love Thom’s original thing. That’s some of the best lyrics in the show. How does it go? You did more than just kiss her now your mother is your sister?

Thom: No, no, no, no. “You killed your one true father, now your wife is your mother. You did more than just kiss her, and now your daughter is your sister.”

Sarah: Right. I also love— damn, why I can’t I remember any of the names of the songs we wrote? The one with Julie and Jack (Julie Herber playing Jocasta and Jack Evans playing Oedipus), the pop number.

Thom: “How Did We Get Here?”

Sarah: No, no, no. From Act I? Wait, is it in Act I?

Thom: “I Should Have Told You.”

Sarah: That’s the one. “I Should Have Told You” is a brilliant song because they’re singing about really, really dire situations, but it’s like you’re watching Grease. Now it’s funny, I’m tone-deaf, I cannot write music, but I love musical theatre. Thom’s not a huge fan of musical theatre.

Thom: No I am not.

Sarah: But the guy’s a musical genius. So when I come to him and I can’t tell him “I need this to be— music-jargon, music-talk, music-lingo.” But I can say, “Hey, you know in Jesus Christ, Superstar that moment when they’re up there doing this? That’s what I need. Or that moment at the end of “Tonight” in West Side Story? I need that.” And he’s able to interpret what I say out of my love for musical theatre and turn it into this amazing thing.

Thom: There are so many things in this show that are so utterly musical theatre. When I was writing the music I actually really wanted to make fun of musicals.

Sarah: I think it does make fun of musicals. It also pays homage to them.

Thom: Exactly. I wanted to ride that line. As far as my favorite songs in the show, I just got over the process of hating all of them.

Sarah: That happened to me too but with the script. I just got over hating it. You’re immersed in it for so long…

Jack Evans (center) as Oedipus and the ensemble of Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Jack Evans (center) as Oedipus and the ensemble of Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Thom: The more we play with the band and the more I hear it, because you know I’ve only been hearing it with crappy midi files on my computer for the last ten months, but the more I head it the more it grows on me. I love, and it might be because it’s the most recent one, but I love the closing number. Two or three weeks ago we didn’t have a closing number.

Sarah: There were two songs that were screwing us the entire time. I knew they needed to be in there and I had written some stuff for them but not lyrics. The closing number I had sort of written some lyrics for but we had no idea what it sounded like.

What are you calling that closing number?

Sarah: We’re calling it “The Closing Number.”

Thom: Yeah. It’s called “The Closing Number” because I haven’t had one minute to think about calling it anything else.

Sarah: Antigone’s song “Digging” we were actually fighting about. Well, not fighting about, but going back and forth as creators do for a very long time. Did we even need this song here?

Thom: No. We don’t. I’ve been saying do we really even need Antigone in the show? Let’s get Antigone out of the show.

Sarah: He doesn’t understand why we need her.

Thom: I don’t think we need Antigone in the show.

Sarah: You know, I put her in there because we needed to see Oedipus not just as a king and a husband but as a father. Plus, you know, it’s a nice thing for the Greek nerds out there who sit there and laugh to themselves, “hahaha, Antigone, we know what’s going to happen.” But I think that song, “Digging” is a brilliant song. And I think the closing number is a brilliant, brilliant way to wrap up the show. It’s so dark and it’s so heavy but then suddenly it gets ridiculous again.

What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of this project?

Sarah: The entire project.

Thom: For me scoring the show. Though I have my degree in composition and I’m getting my masters in composition and I have scored many things, I’ve never scored 85 minutes of music before. It takes way longer than I had anticipated. I’ve been playing these songs at the piano and at the guitar for a year. So you get an idea that this is the song. But then you have to write it down. Here’s the exact length of this note, here’s the exact length of this word, and what exactly is this rhythm? That was the hardest part, it took me forever to get a handle on it. Having to write it down is hard.

Sarah: I had the script done a little while ago. For me, as a non-musical person, we had these lyrics and we kept making tweaks and making tweaks, and we had these midi files, but I couldn’t hear what this project was going to sound like when it was complete. So when you’re hitting the third week of rehearsal as a creator and you have yet to really hear your songs, there’s a panic that develops. I had to just keep trusting Thom when he would tell me that it was going to sound the way we wanted it to sound. The other part that for me was a challenge was, knowing that I put a lot of time and effort into the script so naturally I wanted to put a lot of work into the script. But with a musical, the music comes first. So we spent a lot of time working on the music and there were times where I would think “We’re going to run out of time and not have time to work with my script.” Again, I had to put a lot of trust in Tad and Thom that these elements were going to come together. After a certain point, as a lyricist and a writer, it’s out of my hands. I just had to have faith that they were going to put all the pieces together and that it was going to be great.

Thom: An unexpected challenge that I’m still not quite over is that the score wasn’t finished when I wanted it to be finished by and it definitely wasn’t finished by the time that our Music Director had wanted it finished by. So he bailed. I wasn’t originally the Music Director and neither was Robert Martin.

Sarah: Robert’s been great.

Thom: We brought Robert in because I needed some help. You know I’m balancing my teaching job, school, and this. I couldn’t do it alone. Now our original musical director bailed because this was an original piece. He’s a phenomenal musical director—

Sarah: But there is a certain insanity that you have to have to join these projects. And there’s a certain element of trust that you have to have. And if you’ve never done that before…now Thom and I are fortunate enough to have done this enough with the MET to know what that’s like.

Thom: We’ve all been in that situation where we’re like “Holy shit, we’re not going to be able to open on time.” And then we open on time and it’s fine. And we say, “Oh yeah, I forgot it works out every time.”

Sarah: It was a big thing for us to ask somebody to come in on this project and trust us with what all we didn’t have at the time. In hindsight we probably should have just kept it within the MET family because the MET family has that level of insanity and we’ve all been there before like Thom said. Honestly, it’s probably been better— not only for Thom’s mental status—

Thom: And my sister’s wedding, which is being juggled in there somewhere with school and this and teaching…

Sarah: That too. But it’s better for the show to have the guy that wrote the music as the music director. But that definitely was a little surprise of a hiccup.

Thom: I’m back there going “play something here.” There are moments in the show where we didn’t really know where or if we wanted underscore, so because I wrote the music, it is good that I’m back there because I’m literally saying “Play this chord…now.” And I’m able to make those little moments and some of the underscoring that you’re hearing is being written as you’re hearing it.

What has taking on this project taught you about yourselves?

Thom: Oh man.

Sarah: I don’t know that it’s anything positive. No, I guess what this has taught me about myself is— Thom, you go first.

Thom: Wow, thanks. It’s hard! It’s taught me a lot of things. On the silly side of things? I know I can stay up for 48 hours plus without sleeping. That’s one thing I didn’t know I could do. Another big thing, and this is kind of cheesy, but it’s taught me that I am good at what I do. I’ve had to let myself say that to myself. “Don’t worry, man, because you’re good at this and that’s why you’re doing it.” Allowing myself to do that has been a learning lesson for me.

Jack Evans (left) as Oedipus and Eric Jones (right) as Creon in Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Jack Evans (left) as Oedipus and Eric Jones (right) as Creon in Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Sarah: It’s definitely been a different writing process for me. Everything that I’ve written so far for the MET has either been geared toward kids or the young adult audiences. This was definitely a different writing style. It’s taught me to trust in a different way. This is my first time working with Tad as a creative writer. I’ve worked with him as a Stage Manager many times. He operates and he works on a method that is so completely opposite than the way my brain is wired. I’m anal, I’m structured, I’m paranoid, you know, “Tad! We gotta do stuff! Tad! Why aren’t we doing this? Tad! What’s going on?” It’s definitely taught me that when you spend almost two years writing a project and you take it— it’s a chunk of your soul— and you hand it over to somebody else, there’s an element of trust that you have to develop in order to do that. Doing that with a different director this time around has taught me different methods of backing off, different methods of relaxing, different methods of just having faith that all ten thousand pieces of the puzzle are actually going to come together. Even if you’re not seeing all of the little intricate details happening, you have to trust that they’re happening.

Thom: That was a big thing. A few months out before we had auditions, I had made the conscious decision that I couldn’t be everything. I was the music guy. I mean you start thinking about costumes, set, and lights, and you want to have that control because it’s your project, it’s your baby.

Sarah: And you think you know better than anybody at that point because you’ve spent all this time creating it and making it.

Thom: I had to make that decision, “You’re just the composer and that’s all you’re going to be and that’s all you’re going to worry about.”

Sarah: I view it a little bit differently? I see us as creators, not just as writers or composers, and I want us to have input. But there’s a reason why I would never direct my own project.

Thom: Or light it.

Sarah: Yeah. I would never do anything like that with my own project because we’re too close to it. I never would have thought of a Glam-Rock approach, and honestly I had my concerns about that concept because I was having trouble matching Glam-Rock to the music. I didn’t know if it was going to work.

Thom: It just works!

Sarah: But I trusted Tad. I trusted Tad’s vision. And then I started seeing the lights and the costumes and then I started hearing the music and it was just great. You definitely go in with your input and your opinions but you have to step back and let other people sculpt and mold and do their part.

Why should people come to see Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre?

Thom: Because I worked my ass off on it and if you don’t come see it I’m going to be very upset.

Sarah: True that. Also, this is Frederick, Maryland. We want people to know that you don’t have to go to DC to see amazing and awesome work. There’s nobody else around here that’s doing what we’re doing. There’s nobody else creating full length musicals out of scratch. Come spend your money on amazing original work so that we starving artists can continue to make them.

Thom: I can’t think of any other actual reason other than come because it’s fun. It’s an original musical! You go to Coffee Co. because you don’t want to go to Starbucks. Support local, right? You go to Nola because you don’t want to go to Ruby Tuesday’s down on 85. It’s the same thing with us. Instead of going to Captain America: Civil War, come see Oedipus Rox!

Sarah: I’m still going to see Captain America: Civil War.

Thom: No. No you’re not. No we’re not. Seriously, it’s about supporting local, innovative, creative, new works. No one’s ever done this before. And it’s brand new. So you should come see it.

The ensemble of Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
The ensemble of Oedipus Rox! at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Joe Williams

Sarah: Also, you’re talking to two people right now. This project has been created by a huge amount of people.

Thom: There’s at least 30 other people involved.

Sarah: Every single person in the cast is amazing. Every single person in the development side of things is amazing. Every single member of the band is incredible. No single element of this project would exist without all of them. They willingly signed on to work with two insane individuals who said, “Hey let’s do this.”

Thom: Insanity like handing singers music three weeks out from opening that they’ve never seen before.

Sarah: It was intense, it was stressful, but they hung in there and stuck with it and the product is the result of their hard work. Come see them.  

Oedipus Rox! plays through May 1, 2016 on the Main Stage of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the Historic FSK Hotel building— 31 W. Patrick street in downtown historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.

Click here to read the TheatreBloom review of Oedipus Rox!

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