Originally published in The Crimson White
Passionate. Sensational. Tenacious. Sexy. These were all words used to describe the show by the cast and crew of “Murder Ballad.” It is being put on by The University of Alabama’s Theatre and Dance Department, opening on Jan. 30 and running through Feb. 5.
“Murder Ballad” includes four characters: Michael, Tom, Sara and the narrator, all of whom find ways to influence each other’s lives. Tom and Sara meet at the bar Tom owns and instantly feel as if they’ve known each other forever. Sara soon realizes, though, that perhaps what she values most in life is a more stable man, one who is a New York University graduate like Michael, instead of a hothead bar owner.
“Murder Ballad” readily plays into the dynamics of Michael and Sara’s relationship while also ensuring that Sara and the audience do not forget that Tom lurks in the back of the bar, drinking slowly and waiting his turn.
The narrator is a more ambiguous character; they seem to contribute heavily to the storylines involving the passage of time.
Ashley White, a third-year directing graduate student and the director of the show, leads the cast and crew in the play, which takes place in Tom’s bar, highlighting two lovers who experience the highs and lows of romance. White’s production includes six cast members and a substantial crew that allow the show to run smoothly.
The musical credits indie rock singer and songwriter Juliana Nash for music and lyrics and two-time Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Finalist Julia Jordan for the book and lyrics. It centers on the complexities of love while emphasizing that the love we seek may not work out in the ways intended.
“We see this cacophony of just messiness, and dirtiness and confusion, and these characters unsure and undecided of how they’re navigating the world really drew me. It’s such a character study piece,” White said.
Upon walking into the theatre, however, viewers may not expect just how messy “Murder Ballad” is willing to get. Before the show begins, the theatre has a homey ambiance and familiarity. While the title alludes to a darker side of the musical, the well-designed set almost distracts from any preconceived notions about it. In addition, the pre-show music draws audience members into the story, creating a feeling as if they are sitting in the bar as bystanders, observing the ever-evolving ribbon of emotion that connects the four characters.
“This is the first musical at The University of Alabama in several years that has had more than a piano to accompany it,” senior musical theatre major Matthew Richards Jr., who plays the role of Tom in the show, said. “I think the spectacle of it alone is enough to come see it. … I think everyone carries and then some. So, I think that that would be something to look out for. I think there’s a lot of surprising moments.”
The cast and crew of “Murder Ballad” had a highly collaborative creative process. Everyone was allowed to pitch ideas and work in conjunction on the project.
For viewers of Lin Manuel Miranda’s similar setup of “Hamilton,” “Murder Ballad” is a sung-through musical, or a work in which songs replace any spoken dialogue. There are also no intermissions, which helps the play immerse the crowd, as audience members remain “patrons” of the bar.
“We got it set very early on and were showing up to work and experiment more until it became muscle memory,” said Riley Taylor, a sophomore musical theatre major. “As a swing, I got to do an understudy run, and it’s so dynamic. It’s such a stamina-based show that it’s so cool to see and experiment with other actors.”
Though titled “Murder Ballad,” it may seem like the murder aspect becomes more symbolic instead of physical as the show progresses. And, in a sense, that is true, but for fans of the gore, don’t worry: a murder will occur.
“Murder Ballad” is crafted with a vocally and physically talented cast in mind, and the University’s Theatre and Dance Department did not disappoint.
“Everything that we do is trained and honed down to the safest degree we can have it. We’ve looked a lot at ensuring that it looks unsafe. But, in application, it is, because if it looks too safe, no one’s going to believe it. No one’s going to believe that this person got hit, or these people are supposed to be engaging in something really, really intense. And I think that’s a testament to our director, Ashley. She always prioritizes the safety of her actors and the care for her actors,” Richards Jr. said.
White said she looks forward to having an audience for the show.
“It was a labor of love. It takes a village to make it look this effortless,” White said. “It takes a lot of time and hours on end for these actors here to feel confident and to feel connected with it.”
“Murder Ballad” opened on Jan. 30 and closes on Feb. 5 in the Allen Bales Theatre in Rowand-Johnson Hall, and tickets are currently available for $10. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. except for the matinee on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2:00 p.m. For more information on upcoming shows within the Department of Theatre and Dance, visit here.