Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler’s new musical, Hero, is inspired by superhero comic books and the fanatics who love them. But don’t go to the Marriott Theatre expecting the overblown stunts and special effects of, say, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
“Nobody’s going to fly in the show. There’s no dancing ensemble of superheroes,” says Thielen, the Marriott’s coartistic director. He conceived the story of Hero Batowski, a twentysomething aspiring comic-book artist still living at home and working at his dad Al’s comics shop.
“Since Hero was a kid, his dad has always said, Listen, this is your superpower, your ability to draw. Not everybody has that; you need to share it with the world,” Thielen says. “Although it sounds corny, Al really believes that we all have superpowers. We may not be able to fly, but there’s so many things that people can do that are unique to themselves.”
“It’s flipping the camera around—it’s Peter Parker instead of Spider-Man,” says Mahler, a rising young actor and composer who began writing songs as a Northwestern University undergrad for the school’s annual Waa-Mu Show; his produced work includes the family musical How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater commission. “It’s about people like me when I was a kid, who read about those people and try to take that into their own lives and their own problems.”
The pair began collaborating in 2009, when Mahler was appearing onstage in the Marriott’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. “I always pictured his music with the style of [this] show,” says Thielen, 40, noting that he listened to Mahler’s demo CD while writing the first draft of the script he then brought to the composer. “His fusion of musical theater and Ben Folds and Billy Joel is exactly where I thought the show should live.”
Mahler, 30, a lifelong comics fan who calls himself “a big fanboy,” connected with Thielen’s story of an enthusiast who sees the world around him in terms of heroic ideals. “You read about these people who sacrifice great things or live for these higher ideals, and it’s like, how does that apply to me when my problems are, we can’t pay the rent on our comic-book store, or I can’t seem to get a job?”
Thielen and Mahler have honed the show through a number of developmental workshops, including a 2010 reading for 600 Marriott subscribers and another last year as part of Northwestern’s American Music Theatre Project. Thielen acknowledges that Mahler’s music is “a different sound” than the more traditional musical-theater scores his subscriber base is used to hearing. “I think this is the kind of show we’ve never done, with a band that’s really a rock band,” he says.
But Mahler argues that in many ways, Hero is a very traditional musical. “When people say they hate musicals or musical theater, I think it’s because they don’t like bad musicals. I don’t either, y’know?” he says, laughing.
“I think the score sounds kind of, like, indie rock-edgy, but the songs are doing what songs are supposed to do in a good musical: not just stop the action for a production number, but help a character work out his thoughts and feelings and move the action forward,” Mahler adds. “I still believe in it as a viable medium.”
Hero takes flight Jun 20–Aug 19 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.