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St. Lou Fringe, by definition, is a little “out there.” You’ll find an array of performances that include things like multi-platform salutes to Jackson Pollack. And this year, St. Louis’ home of art on the edge was exploring more new places, specifically musical theater touching on subjects where musicals don’t often tread.
“There’s been protest music forever. Why can’t there be a protest musical?” That’s the question posed by Colin Healy, writer and producer of “The Gringo.” Healy is a Florida native living in St. Louis. His show touches on the very raw nerves exposed in recent years in both of his homes.
“The Gringo” is based on events surrounding the death of a graffiti artist named Israel Hernandez after being “tased” by Miami Beach Police. Healy heard about the story, then realized he had attended high school with Hernandez.
“I had no idea that our lives geographically were so close and our lives culturally were so different,” Healy said, “and that blew my mind apart as a Floridian where racism and cultural touchstones like that are not really necessarily on the forefront of everybody’s tongue all the time. So it kind of led me down this rabbit hole of like, geez, how many different freakin’ Americas are there?”
He worked on the show for a while, then moved to St. Louis in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. That’s when the foot went on the gas creatively. In the end, he created a musical touching on serious, dark subject matter that is a long way from “Meet Me in St. Louis.
“A musical doesn’t have to stay “Showboat” and all that stuff. It can be anything. And if anybody thinks any different, I’ll fight ‘em,” he said with a laugh.
Matthew Kerns, Executive Director of St. Lou Fringe, can’t help but thing of the possibilities for a high quality, innovative show.
“We would be so excited if the Gringo went “all the way” so to speak.”
Kerns sees “The Gringo’s” serious subject matter following in the footsteps of recent smashes like “Hamilton,” and a chat with Healy sold him on the show.
“We started talking about it and instantly I agreed because I see such great talent and potential in that young artist and I believe he has these interesting stories that are a new space for the musical theater that really can go all the way,” Kerns said.
Healy also sees the path.
“Shows like “Urinetown” and a number of other shows, I don’t know the exhaustive list. But fringe festivals are one of the many traditional launching points for Broadway shows, and if the show is good enough and has the following and a little bit of luck and a lot of elbow grease, maybe you’ll get there. And that’s the hope for this show.”
There are other big aspirations at St. Lou Fringe. “Race Cars and Romance” is the brainchild, not of a Broadway veteran, but of a former oil change shop owner in Dallas, Texas.
“Basically a guy who owned a Jiffy Lube wrote a musical, basically about life at a Jiffy Lube,” Kerns said with a chuckle.
That guy, Klay Rogers, picks up the story.
“And I wasn’t really very good at running the oil change business,” he confessed. “You have to be a car lover and I’m not really a car lover. But there are a lot of situations that went on that I would observe, and I just felt compelled to write lyrics about them.”
Rogers brother in Oregon wrote the music and some Broadway veterans were found online to bring it all together. Now “Race Cars and Romance” is the national headliner here, with that same Broadway dream coming out of Fringe.
“It’s a really great opportunity for small shows to take a step forward,” the show’s producer, Ralph Meitzler said.
They’ll all tell you festivals like St. Lou Fringe keep dreams alive. Dreams of making it big for those still climbing their own artistic mountains.
“People at large say, you’re an actor or you’re a director,” Healy said. “Well, I’m a teacher. And people in my cast are like insurance salesmen. Not everybody is straight up a performer. That’s not how most of us put a roof over our head.”