While most poets merely write about death, a character in an upcoming musical will cause one.
An original adaptation of Janet Fitch’s 1999 novel “White Oleander,” with its book by Eric Sirakian ’15 and music and lyrics by Alex Ratner ’15, opens Thursday in the Calhoun Cabaret. The production serves as a senior project in American Studies for Ratner, who is also the show’s musical director. The musical follows the life of 14-year-old aspiring artist Astrid Magnussen, the daughter of a poet named Ingrid Magnussen, who is sent to prison for murdering her boyfriend. Sirakian said the show explores situations that are unfamiliar but still relatable to most Yale students.
“The play [poses] questions about what is home: ‘What do I owe to my family?’ versus ‘What do I owe to myself?’” Sirakian said. “Our protagonist is thrown into the most extreme and awful circumstances you can imagine for a young girl growing up.”
Set in Los Angeles in the early nineties, the play deals with Astrid’s coming-of-age as she struggles to define herself in relation to both her mother and her foster mothers. In the story, Astrid is sent through a series of foster homes until she turns 18.
Ratner and Sirakian said the play also tackles issues surrounding America’s foster care system, a topic rarely approached in theater and other media.
The three foster homes that Astrid passes through form a triptych in the production, Ratner said. Each of Astrid’s foster mothers is represented by a different musical style, ranging from country western to jazz, while Astrid, like her mother, maintains a pop rock sound throughout the show. Ratner said that the distinct styles, which he gleaned from researching musical influences found in various parts of Los Angeles during the nineties, are helpful in distinguishing between characters.
Director Leora Morris DRA ’16 said that no matter how many people Astrid is exposed to throughout the show, she always retains a bit of Ingrid’s musical style.
As undergraduate productions are rarely directed by Yale School of Drama students, Morris said she agreed to work on the show because she was moved by Ratner’s and Sirakian’s “energy and ambition.” Morris highlighted the way the production subverts expectations of the Broadway musical genre by addressing the serious issues that Astrid must face.
Sarah Chapin ’17, who plays Astrid, described her character as unwaveringly devoted to her mother at the beginning of the play. But as Astrid encounters other characters throughout the course of the play, she starts to question her devotion to Ingrid, Chapin said. The show explores whether Astrid’s happiness is contingent on her mother’s presence in her life, she added.
As Astrid begins to distance herself from her mother, Ratner said, she realizes that she has inherited some of Ingrid’s traits, such as vindictiveness and capacity for outrage and anger.
“[Astrid] has unwittingly inherited parts of her mother even as she’s being conditioned to be other people, these other foster mothers,” Ratner said.
Chapin said that ultimately, the musical is about what it means to be a daughter and what it means to be a mother.
“I’m going to walk out of there and hug my mom and say, ‘Thank you for not being Ingrid,’” Chapin said.