This weekend, New Haven will see the premiere of an original folk musical written by Yale students.
“Dust Can’t Kill Me” seeks to capture life during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as well as showcase elements of the American folk music tradition. Elliah Heifetz ’15, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, noted that he and the show’s playwright Abigail Carney ’15, aimed to cast the original American folk story in a new light. Carney explained that “Dust Can’t Kill Me” incorporates many traditional folk characters. The plot follows the lives of Lily and Angelina, two sisters who own a failing farm; Birch and Abe, two struggling migrant workers; Wesley, an outlaw; and Montgomery, a folk singer. All are visited by a prophet, who tells them about a place in the desert where they can escape their troubles — though once they all arrive there, overcoming life’s problems proves more difficult than they had been led to believe.
“We were trying to take the storytelling element of folk music and translate it onto [the] stage,” Heifetz said. “We wanted to figure out a way to have the kind of music we love, the drama that we love that happens in really character-driven plays, and the fun energy, the fun aspect of musical theatre.”
The musical began as an act of collaboration, Heifitz said, explaining that he and Carney conceived the story together while listening to music by folk singers and songwriters such as Woody Guthrie. In fact, Heifetz and Carney said, the musical’s title comes from a Guthrie song of the same name.
Carney added that during workshops for the musical in the fall, the collaborative element of the production process grew to include not only the show’s writers, but its cast and designers as well — something she said she thinks rarely happens with shows that are not original works.
“Seeing the various ways that they interpret the work and bring it to life … it becomes so much bigger and richer than what [Heifetz] and I had imagined on our own,” Carney said. “All of the talented people bringing their ideas, their interpretations to the work — that is what created the world of the show.”
Jonathan Lian ’15, the show’s producer, oversaw the costume, set and lighting designers tasked with creating the musical’s visual components. Because the story takes place during the Dust Bowl, he explained, designers had to find a way to stage natural disasters and complex weather conditions. Artistically, he added, “Dust Can’t Kill Me” accurately depicts the way those affected by the Dust Bowl lived.
“[The show is] a good reflection of what they had back then, which was nothing … they were basically traveling vagabonds,” Lian explained. “It’s centered around a theme of up-rootedness, lost hope and that’s all reflected in the technical aspects of this production. It’s very raw.”
Because of budget and space constraints, the team of designers working on “Dust Can’t Kill Me” had to find creative ways to evoke the Dust Bowl period, Lian noted. He mentioned that it was particularly important for the lighting designer to conjure the illusion of the rain and dust storms that envelop the cast throughout the performance, adding that the crew used light effects to draw the audience into the storms as well.
Heifitz explained that he hopes the show will expose audience members to the fun elements of folk music.
“We’re just trying to create and evoke a world and leave some songs and images in people’s heads,” Carney said. “And we just wanted it to be fun, a lot of fun, and something outside of what you’d normally be thinking or observing on your typical Friday.”
“Dust Can’t Kill Me” premieres on Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. in the Morse Crescent Theater.