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Shadowbox Live’s F#(K Cancer: The Musical Runs through August 26

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Shadowbox Live’s F#(K Cancer: The Musical Runs through August 26Actors from Shadowbox Live’s “F#(k Cancer: The Musical.” Photo by Buzz Crisaulli.
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Like all their best work, Shadowbox’s F#(k Cancer: The Musical (the actual title incorporates graphical elements from the Shadowbox logo) is a labor of love with a sardonic edge. This original musical grew from the seed of their founder and much-missed director Stev Guyer scribbling on a notepad.

After his diagnosis, Guyer wrote exactly those words, “Fuck Cancer: The Musical,” then turned to the company and said, “Any ideas?” I spoke with Jimmy Mak, Tom Cardinal, and Matt Hahn during the rehearsal process for their perspectives on this show that hits close to home for more reasons than one.

Jimmy Mak, the writer, said, “Stacie [Boord, Executive Director] is verygood at making things happen. She put the opening date on the calendar. ‘I guess there has to be a show now.’ I started thinking about stories; how do I show lives impacted by cancer? But I didn’t want to write a sob story – depressing, helpless, and sad. That’s not Shadowbox, and it’s not my experience of life or people I loved with cancer.”

Tom Cardinal, long-running Shadowbox board member and one of Fuck Cancer’s stars, agreed. “Grief affects people differently. My partner laughs at me when I cry at movies; I feel empathy for everyone experiencing something. In the ‘90s I was around the Garage and the Eagle and Union, and I lost so many friends – that was my first real experience with death. And I drew on it as deeply for this show as I drew on Stev. But the hat I wear? That’s Stev’s hat.”

Mak talked about working on the narrative. “First, I thought it would be interesting to follow a young person. Just off to college: first taste of freedom, away from helicopter parents, and just coming out as gay. This pulls him right back to his family. Then I thought about a dancer. She’s in the prime of her life when the diagnosis comes. The last character is an older man turning to his ex-wife. That character is mostly based on watching my Dad deal with it and watching Stev’s final fight.”

The music and lyrics for this musical come courtesy of Ed Hamell. Hamell has recorded and toured solo under the moniker Hamell on Trial for almost 30 years. For many of those years, live music fans could set their watch by his regular appearances in Columbus. Music Director Matt Hahn said, “I became a Hamell on Trial fan hearing him live on [Public Radio station] WCBE. I had to go see him that night at Little Brother’s.” As most of us do, Hanh fell in love with Hamell’s stories and songs, part searing protest music, part heart-rending confessional, and part borscht belt schtick. “I brought him up as someone who would be good to write this. He gets it. We want to make people laugh, but don’t want to make light of the situation.”

Mak said, “All three of the stories really quickly gelled. I realized I wanted to tell all these stories. I had to make them come together in the end. I sent a rough outline and character sketches to Ed [Hamell], and his response was immediate: ‘I know these people.’ This feels like a musical, and it’s been a really fun collaborative process. The songs complicate the stories without saying ‘Here’s what the feeling is.’ Sometimes the song didn’t fit at all, but the song was so great and so true I’d write around the song.”

Cardinal talked about the process and role of the cast in shaping the material. “We saw a very, very early draft of the script where parts of it were a little trite and didn’t mesh well with the music. But it’s come together with everyone saying, ‘What do we need to do to make this gel?’ In a lot of good ways, it’s been roughly the same as any other process would have been.”

Hanh spoke to me about shaping the songs into their final form. “Ed Hamell sent us a bunch of demos recorded on his phone. The first thing Kevin Sweeney and I had to do in arranging is think about the two-guitar, keys, bass, drums format. When Ed’s out touring, he has to be the whole band. And sometimes all that hard down-picked rhythm guitar and shouted vocal delivery won’t work with a full band, it feels unbalanced. Hamell also gave suggestions – ‘This should sound like Rage Against the Machine,’ ‘This should sound like Nine Inch Nails,’ – and we’d always try to use those as a starting point. So we’ve got songs like ‘Bonjour,’ with accordions in homage to French music; there’s a song in the style of Hendrix, we cover a lot of ground.”

I attended a preview evening which included performances of three of the songs. I can attest, the songs strike an intriguing, uncanny balance between harsh reality and ribald entertainment. These included the dancer finding herself unable to care about her social media news feed because “My friends are whiny bitches.”

Cardinal said, “It was great to be able to go into show mode when my Dad died. And it was great to have that focus when Stev passed. He made peace with his path, and he was always about the show going on.”

Talking about this resurgent trend toward more ambitious, spikier, original work, Mak said, “There’s always trepidation – will the audience go for this? But that was part of bringing everyone back together in the Brewery District location, and I love writing in different styles. And our audience has been awesome. They’re willing to take a chance, and they’re willing to tell us when something doesn’t work for them, but they keep coming back. It’s still an incredible feeling to work with this troupe, these amazing musicians, this world-class choreography, and these incredible actors and singers.”

The preview also underlined Shadowbox’s deep sense of connection with its community and the love it engenders in that community. Principal sponsors Pelotonia and Cardinal Health had representatives speak who both seemed excited to be there and didn’t blink an eye at the adult and irreverent treatment of the subject.

This has the makings of everything Shadowbox does well turned up to eleven. What could be a more fitting tribute to someone who always pushed toward the next thing and always focused on the work?

F#(K Cancer: The Musical runs select Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. from June 14 through August 26. For tickets and more info, visit shadowboxlive.org.

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