Jenn’s Take: U-M senior’s world premiere finds (sold-out) audience before the curtain rises 

Normally, selling tickets for a new show that no one’s heard of is slow-going, to say the least.

But U-M musical theater senior Noah Kieserman’s two world premiere performances of “Shel: A Historically Fictionalized Musical,” happening Thursday and Friday at the Duderstadt Center’s Video Studio, sold out in three hours when tickets went on sale Jan. 26.

Yes, the studio is a relatively small venue – about 65 seats – but even so, excitement surrounding Kieserman’s Hopwood Award-winning exploration of the life of children’s poet/songwriter Shel Silverstein is pretty high. The student production team has even arranged to live-stream “Shel” to a nearby room with four HD screens, in order to accommodate 30 additional people.

Though “Shel” was workshopped for two weeks in Washington D.C. last summer – a group of high school students performed readings and some partially staged scenes – this week’s independent U-M campus production marks the first fully-staged version of the show.

And not only was it easy to find an audience for “Shel”; it’s also been easy to find student artists who want to be involved.

“This is the first project I’ve ever worked on in my life for which I didn’t have to approach almost anyone about coming onto the show – they approached me,” said “Shel” student producer (and U-M musical theatre junior) Thomas Laub, who’s assembled a team of student choreographers, costume designers, etc. “The material is so strong, so impactful, that everyone wanted to be a part of the process.”

Silverstein, most famous for the picture book “The Giving Tree” and the poetry collection “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” led an eclectic life, serving in the Korean War, counting Playboy founder Hugh Hefner among his closest friends, and writing songs like “The Unicorn” and “A Boy Named Sue.” He was no stranger to tragedy, yet because of his penchant for privacy, there are gaps in the story of his life, including a paucity of information about the one-time Playboy bunny with whom Silverstein had a child, but who died the day before their daughter turned five.

Photos by Jenn McKee

“It’s curious,” said Kieserman of the mystery. “ … I still wanted to tell a story – a love story in some capacity – even if it’s a more contemporary-feeling one, in terms of its lack of commitment on both sides. It’s an interesting thing to explore.”

In fact, one of show’s themes concerns the idea of balance – the artist’s driving, constant need to create, even when that intense focus ends up hurting those around him.

“He was like a modern-day Peter Pan,” said Keiserman. “He was always so inspired by what he saw in the world, and he was always looking for an answer, and for us, I think the answer comes at the end. … If his thesis is, you’ve got to put something in creatively, by the end, we come to find, you’ve got to put something in emotionally. That it’s just as important to invest in people as it is to put yourself into the work.”

Kieserman came to write “Shel” after a friend suggested collaborating on a stage adaptation of “The Giving Tree” during Kieserman’s freshman year at U-M. That project didn’t take root (so to speak), but Kieserman’s interest in Silverstein’s life and work did. In fact, Kieserman wrote the book for “Shel” in verse that mimics, in style and spirit, Silverstein’s own creative work.

“He had this way of simplifying intricate, nuanced concepts about human life in his poems that was really unique,” said Kieserman. “You know, you’ll read a poem of his where, the three lines are silly, clearly aimed at children, and then the last line will hit adults really hard. When I learned his life story, … he seemed like someone you wouldn’t expect to write children’s poetry. So I started to wonder what led him to do something like that.”

Of course, those of us not lucky enough to have nabbed tickets for “Shel” will have to wait for our next opportunity to see the show – and currently, the production team at U-M plans to assess its next move after this week’s production wraps. But in the meantime, it seems to be making everyone involved in the show smile.

“Shel’s style comes through so brightly, and I get to wake up every morning knowing that I’m bringing a story of childhood, adolescence, growth, and acceptance to the world,” said Laub. “I’m so excited to help this story enter the world, and I can’t wait to continue the journey of the show past this workshop.”

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