The first time César Alvarez and Emily Orling ever collaborated (after dating for about a month), they crafted Halloween costumes—paper mâché dinosaur helmets to be exact—for Alvarez’s band, the Lisps. But The Elementary Spacetime Show playing at Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater July 12–14 marks the first time the musician/theatre artist and visual artist/scenic and costume designer (and married couple) have written a musical together.
After losing a mutual friend to suicide, Alvarez was searching for answers by writing songs. “When we lost our friend, I didn't even know what to think,” says Alvarez, a Jonathan Larson grant recipient who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book for what has evolved into Elementary Spacetime. “Was it OK? Does she have every right to make that choice, and where was she now? I didn't have the tools to understand it, and so I felt like I wanted to create a world where we could like investigate it. Theatre has always been a place of inquiring.”
Orling had struggled with her own mental illness alongside this friend and as Alvarez delved deeper into the creation of this world, Orling officially joined as a co-book writer. “There's an incredible depth and intensity that Emily's voice brought,” Alvarez says. “So much of the story was her story that she has this way of kind of being the emotional barometer of the entire piece.”
With the poeticism and wit of Alvarez, the grounding of Orling, and the vision of director Sarah Benson, The Elementary Spacetime Show tells the story of Alameda, a young girl who attempts suicide and awakes trapped in a cosmic musical starring her that she must finish in order to enter the void of death. The more Alameda wants to die, the harder she has to work.
In its earlier stages, Elementary Spacetime was structured as a musical game show, forcing Alameda to beat levels; but through the development process at Powerhouse, that premise yielded to the idea of Alameda stuck in her own musical. Orling describes each song as "a threshold that Alameda has to transverse in order to transform in some way—either to shed a layer of her or to heal something, to receive a gift.”
Like his Lucille Lortel–winning Futurity that combined Civil War soldiers and sci-fi, Alvarez bends the rules of space and time to grapple with suicide and the stigma tethered to it and “delve into the actual question of being,” Alvarez explains.
Alvarez’s sound works to simultaneously create this cosmic space and one of healing, writing his music by feel. “Music is, for me, about vibration,” the songwriter explains. He eschews the piano in favor of a Moog synthesizer and a bass; he weaves in a saxophone. While the show does boast two “big musical theatre numbers,” it coasts on a futuristic vibe.
“I talk about musical theatre as the utopian practice where we're creating worlds that we don't actually get to inhabit but they sort of begin to design interesting reinventions of the world we currently live in,” Alvarez says.
“The show is César—the sort of song of dance of it and the philosophical questions and the performative quality and the crazy funniness,” Orling adds. “I’m really like Alameda. I don't fully identify with Alameda anymore, that's more in my past I would say, but I really understand her and where she's coming from.”
What results is a rich and personal piece about transformation. “We don't come by [a musical about suicide] lightly,” Alvarez says. “We're really working to create a state of transformation for people on all sides of the question.”
The Powerhouse Theater season brings fully-produced plays, musical workshops, and readings of works-in-progress to the Vassar College campus for six weeks every summer, a developmental space free from any and all reviews that leads to new works that will play theatres around the world.