America is replete with music festivals (especially this summer, New York). There are so many it could make your head spin, causing you to momentarily lose sanity and fall into a killing spree.
That’s not exactly what happens in Jared Saltiel and Toby Singer‘s new musical South By South Death, but it’s close—the show is about a group of friends who head south to attend the infamous “Didgeridoo Music Festival,” conveniently set on a remote island. At the festival, pop star “Ciley Myrus” is headlining, but there’s something darker afoot. Someone in a Myrus mask begins killing everyone and documenting the carnage. Through selfies, of course. As more and more people die, there’s another disaster looming, this one of the natural variety: Hurricane Beyoncé.
Saltiel calls the show, which premieres tomorrow and was developed as part of National Sawdust‘s August LABS, “a very complex murder mystery.” But that hasn’t stopped them from supposedly filling it with as many jokes as they could. Saltiel explains SXSD came about a couple years ago when the two of them were just hanging out, throwing ideas around. Saltiel suggested a slasher set at a music festival, and Singer–who had just started writing musical theater again—suggested it be a slasher music festival musical. It was so funny to them that, the next week, one had to ask the other if it was just a joke or if they were doing it for real (which is, in my opinion, the best way to create something).
Saltiel and Singer are both singer-songwriters in their own right, but Singer has done more musical theater writing while Saltiel confesses to being “the guy who just doesn’t know anything” about theater. The genre seems like a natural next step for him, however, as his music has “shifted more and more into absurdly complex narrative and concept.” The blend of their respective similarities and differences has made for a collaboration where they “truly co-wrote everything,” leading to a show that runs the gamut from spooky horror riffs and slasher character archetypes to poppy high-energy ensemble numbers and even some Sondheim influences.
The title’s play on SXSW came partly from pun; once they thought of it, it was “too much to resist.” Neither of them have played or attended SXSW, although Singer did stop by briefly this year on his way to workshop another musical at a nearby fringe festival. As they both have spent time with the music industry, a show about music festivals, however absurd and bloody, has opened a door for more serious themes.
“I would say if anything the show’s connection to SXSW and how that connects to our lives is more that the show has a huge undercurrent about artists dealing with rejection. I think it was us working through that feeling, making peace with it, making comedy about it. Our attitudes have changed pretty dramatically through the time period we’ve been writing the show,” says Saltiel. “And I think we would love to go to SXSW at this point.” He jokes that the elevator pitch appeal of SXSD is nice because “half of what the show is about is a character who can’t get any music press.”
National Sawdust might seem like an odd choice for a campy piece of upbeat musical theater. The venue (which we’ve called a “refined concert hall“) normally showcases new or emerging contemporary classical composers or more obscure stuff like Inuit throat singing. I’m all for genres popping up in unexpected venues, and Singer says they’re using the space’s “very stark black and white, really dramatic” aspects to work alongside the minimalist nature of this showing. They’re also taking advantage of the venue’s “multimedia-rich capabilities,” prioritizing projections that give life to the various ways festivalgoers inevitably communicate via social media and texting rather than trying to impose any elaborate scenic design on an already unique space.
“We had to find a solution for how to maintain theatricality but integrate technology into the way the story plays out with these characters and in physical space,” says Saltiel, calling the show “extremely up to date, perhaps to a fault.”
Though this is the first time they’re ever showing this piece to the public, they aren’t holding back. The full-length show has 16 performers playing “somewhere in the range of 30 characters,” and the score will be performed on National Sawdust’s “glorious, glorious grand piano” (which they say is perfect for “creepy underscoring”). There will also be a four-piece rock band. Saltiel will be manning drums and Singer will be at the piano, putting them right in the middle of the action rather than taking a backseat as some composers do. Oh, and there will be a didgeridoo.
South By South Death is happening Friday, August 26 and Sunday, August 28 at National Sawdust, 7 pm. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 at the door.