September 1, 2011 at 1:42 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
New voices, new works

Matt Conner (left) and Adam Gwon, composers of two new musicals on the boards now at Signature. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘The Boy Detective Fails’
‘The Hollow’
Through Oct. 16
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington

In a rather bold move, Signature Theatre, the Arlington-based company that is best known for doing pared down takes on fat Broadway hits, is opening its fall season with not one but two world premiere musicals in full production in rep. And what’s more, the shows, “The Boy Detective Fails” and “The Hollow,” are the new works of talented rising composers Adam Gwon and Matt Conner respectively, and not the latest offerings from a pair of household names.

As part of Signature’s American Musical Voices Project: The Next Generation, Conner and Gwon (both gay) were each commissioned to develop full length musicals.  Not long after receiving his commission, New York-based Gwon met with Eric Schaeffer (Signature’s gay artistic director) to discuss project ideas: “I was determined to do ‘The Boy Detective Fails.,’” Gwon says. “When I’d read it several years earlier, I knew instantly that it was something I had to make into a musical.”

Adapted from the same-titled popular novel by Joe Meno (also the musical’s librettist), “The Boy Detective Fails” tells the story of famed kid sleuth Billy Argo who returns to his hometown after 10 years in a mental institution to solve the mystery of his sister’s death. Hardly the stuff of the Nancy Drew series, but still Gwon says he approached his contemporary musical theater score in childlike way, “trying to create a world full of wonder that is at times earnest and heartfelt and then changes to scary.”

Conner’s story is different. He says Schaeffer suggested he develop a chilling musical reinterpretation of Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: “My first thought was I better re-read this,” says Conner, 41. “All I could remember was it had a guy without a head, but of course there a lot more including themes of country vs. city and what it likes to be an outsider.”

After selecting Hunter Foster (librettist and Broadway actor) to write the book for “The Hollow,” Conner concentrated on the show’s score, which he describes as having a classical feel.

“It begins very structured and grounded and then soars off into my own ethereal world,” he says.

Conner successfully mined Irving’s text for lyrics, finding both vivid imagery and beautifully expressed phrases. He also uses the townsfolk’s Dutch language to accentuate city boy, English speaker Ichabod Crane’s otherness.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Stephens City, Va., Conner learned to play piano by ear and became involved in his church choir. He attended the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester. After graduating he began doing musical theater in the D.C. area and eventually found an artistic home at Signature.

As a boy in Baltimore, Gwon displayed an affinity for music. At 3, he was climbing up on the bench and plunking out tunes on the family piano. His parents smartly fostered his interest.

“I experienced music and theater on different tracks: drama club and after school classical piano lessons” says Gwon, 31. Eventually it came together in college (NYU’s undergraduate drama program) where he first wrote music for student productions. Inspired by that experience and the work of a freshman year musical theater professor who unexpectedly died mid-semester, Gwon was hooked.

Both composers have known success. Gwon’s musical about young New Yorkers “Ordinary Days” enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run, and Conner’s Edgar Allen Poe musical paean “Nevermore” was popularly produced at Signature five seasons ago. More recently Conner completed a yet-to-be-produced musical adaptation of “Night of the Living Dead” in collaboration with local actor Stephen Gregory Smith (who plays the title role in “The Boy Detective Fails”). Apparently Conner isn’t concerned about becoming the go-to guy for spooky musicals: “I may be a poor composer most of the year, but hopefully every October when Halloween rolls around, I’ll earn a lot of royalties.”

Among possible future projects, Gwon is considering composing a show based on Harvard University’s “Secret Court” of 1920. Spurred by the suicide of a gay undergraduate, the university created a disciplinary tribunal responsible for investigating a wide circle of sexually adventurous gays on campus. Those found guilty were punished with suspension or expulsion.

Conner is also interested in setting the LGBT experience to music with something related to Stonewall.

But for the moment, Conner and Gwon remain focused on succeeding at Signature.


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