It makes sense that Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen would create a song revue entitled Fugitive Songs. In a way, there is nothing more American than a fascination with fugitives, and there isn’t much theatre music which pulls together more strands of the American character than Chris and Nate’s work. Steeped in Church music, traditional folk music, pop, and gospel sounds, the music they’ve given to the theatre is as eclectic as the characters they are writing for. And while the “fugitives” of their pieces are often young kids trying to understand their worlds, there is no doubt that they share the quality of all fugitives…They are all on the run.
In Chris and Nate’s first full length musical, The Burnt Part Boys, the fugitive is the young Pete, who along with his best friend Dusty, is running towards the mountaintop to blow up the old mine (known as the Burnt Part) before they can re-open it. The Burnt Part is really a grave. It’s the site of an old mining disaster that took the lives of Pete and his brother’s (Jake) father. And many of the father’s of many of the kids in town. Pete and Dusty are on the run from Jake and Chet, who have been hired to re-open the mine and continue their dead father’s work.
Or maybe the fugitive in The Burnt Part Boys is Jake, the older brother, who really doesn’t want to be opening up the old mine and taking on the responsibility of taking care of his younger brother and still grieving mother. Or it could be Frances, the young girl who agrees to join Pete in his quest to destroy the mine. After all, Frances also lost her father to the mine, and her mother to grief. As a result, she’s decided to live off the land and fend for herself halfway up the mountain in a lean-to she built herself.
In any case, all of these characters are running from some aspect of the tragedy that has destroyed their lives. Of course, in running away from something, you also must be running towards something else. In this case, a reckoning with the ghosts of their fathers, and a better understanding of life and how to keep living it. Not by running away, but by embracing each other and taking care of each other.
In Tuck Everlasting, the fugitive is much more clear. It’s the entire Tuck clan, who after discovering the elixir of eternal youth in a spring which runs in the woods behind Winnie’s house. As a result of their immortality, the Tucks are forever on the run from those who would claim, and abuse, their secret.
Or maybe it isn’t so clear, since “good girl” Winnie Foster might actually be the fugitive of the piece. Since she literally runs away from home because she wants to know what the world holds beyond her white picket fence. True, she does have the encouragement of her grandmother, but if her mother knew what she was up to, there would definitely be a reckoning. Of course, the Tucks secret and Winnie’s exploration inevitably intertwine, and then they all must run from the Man in Yellow, who is really up to no good.
But at least in Fugitive Songs, Chris and Nate’s revue of songs, we know who the fugitives are. All 19 of them. Because, as the title suggests, each song tells the story of a different kind of fugitive. Whether it’s the stoner who robs a convenience store against his will, or the disgruntled subway worker. Each character represents someone on the run.
What’s also clear about Nate and Chris’ work is how steeped in Americana it is. Both children of ministers, both spent significant amount of time performing and listening to music from their respective churches (Chris’ father was even a Minister of Music). Both also learned to love musicals at a relatively young age. Their melodies, their harmonies, their orchestrations are steeped in the sounds of the their upbringing in Virginia and Kansas. Whether writing a piece that takes place in 1952 in the heart of coal country, or whether writing an adaptation of a famous children’s book that has no country, Chris and Nate make it sound like an American tale.
So it makes sense that their “fugitives” would be embodied by such an American sound. And while they may be drawn to characters that are on the run, it’s pretty clear to me that neither of them is really running from themselves or their respective pasts at all. Rather they are embracing their unique sound and heritage and bringing it into the grand tradition of storytelling that the theatre embodies. It’s fun to spend time with the fugitives in these stories. But it’s also fun to stay put and revel in the unique sounds of two writers who know where they’re meant to be.