Once upon a time, Broad Street came before Broadway: Philadelphia was a mecca for musicals in development, with shows like Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago trying out here prior to going to New York City. We even had the storied Prince Music Theater, which was specifically created to spotlight new work. Those days are gone: Philly’s once major role has largely been subsumed by private readings and industry-sponsored workshops. But Michael Philip O’Brien would like to change that.
As cofounder and artistic director of 11th Hour Theatre Company, O’Brien has led a local musical-theater resurgence. Since its 2004 inception, his company has produced 21 full-length productions, including two world premieres. It’s also picked up 15 Barrymores and has been hailed as the most significant force for new musical theater in the city.
O’Brien sees untapped potential for new musicals within the Philadelphia theater ecosystem. “The community here has been very passionate about new plays, but new musicals have lagged behind,” he says. “We feel like we have an opportunity to change that, and we have such a sophisticated and theater-savvy audience that we believe this is the prime city to try out new work.”
That theory will be tested when 11th Hour premieres Big Red Sun, an original musical by John Jiler and Georgia Stitt, at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. Jiler was so impressed with 11th Hour’s 2009 production of his musical Avenue X that he sent O’Brien the script for Big Red Sun. In 2016, the troupe produced a concert version of the show, which sparked interest in a full staging.
Big Red Sun follows an aspiring songwriter as he searches for the truth about his father, a venerated swing musician who died in World War II. “The story has morphed over the years, but the major themes have stayed the same,” O’Brien says. “It’s about a son who doesn’t know his father. It’s a coming-of-age story for Harry, the main character, as a teenager and as a musician. The show flashes back and forth between the ’60s and the ’40s and portrays Harry as he tries to find his voice in a crazy musical time.”
The score reflects the shifting musical language of the period, with influences ranging from jazz and big-band swing to rock and roll and Americana. Jiler and Stitt also represent the characters’ Jewish heritage through music, with klezmer-style orchestrations.
Resident director Megan Nicole O’Brien helms the production, which stars an all-Philadelphian cast. Speaking by phone from her home in New York, Stitt praises Philly’s “unbelievably supportive” theater community. “I have been aware of the work happening in Philadelphia for years, and I know that we would have never crossed the finish line with Big Red Sun were it not for 11th Hour,” she says. “We are grateful for the platform to allow people to see the show and to get interested in it. The goal has been to get here.”
Stitt believes the show will speak to audience members of all ages and backgrounds. “Big Red Sun addresses the events in your life that can either silence you or empower you to move forward,” she observes. “Although it’s historically set, it has contemporary ideas about the world we’re living in. The only way forward is to make sure that your voice is heard and your stories are told.”
Big Red Sun plays Christ Church Neighborhood House May 31 to June 17. Tickets are $40.