On Monday, July 20, 2020, Monumental Theatre Company will present an online reading of a new musical, Desiderium, written by Ricky Drummond and featuring music by The Oh Hellos. Because of the musical’s very emotional themes—love, loss, and mourning—DC Metro Theater Arts invited the author to share about the show personally.
By Ricky Drummond
Death is unavoidable. It is the great equalizer. As an American society, we have not learned to celebrate what death reveals.
In writing Desiderium, I was reminded that we can better appreciate ideas by exploring their opposites. We welcome the day after the night. We enjoy sweetness after tasting bitterness. We can not live a full life until we acknowledge that it is finite.
The creation of this show began quietly. With any new script I write, I start with the seed of an idea—what I call the “heart of the piece.” From there, I slowly form the plot and characters through contemplation and conversation. This could be in the form of taking a walk and listening to music, or when engaging in some completely unrelated discussion whose themes touch on that of the play. Over time, the world of the play takes shape and is given meaning.
The heart of Desiderium is how we continue to live when a loved one has passed, and what meaning comes from this loss. I lost a dear high school friend less than a year into college, and I watched as so many people, myself among them, struggled to make sense of it all. You expect to lose older relatives and friends, but what of the 19-year-old with a life full of potential ahead of him?
I came across a quote that comforted me during that time when reading The Bridge Over St. Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. “There is a land of the living, and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Love. His love. My friend whom we lost prematurely was one of the most outgoing, caring humans I’ve had the pleasure to know. I know that death reforms our image of those who have passed, but undeniably, he was a great human. His Facebook is still up and his timeline is still active with messages of friends messaging him to inform him how they saw something that reminded them of him, how they accomplished something because of what they learned from him. The love that he put into this world did not depart with him. This revelation drove the creation of this musical.
The process of developing a new musical over Zoom was both familiar and uniquely difficult. The initial stage, consisting of sending drafts to the Monumental team and our incredible director Caroline Dubberly, was a relatively easy adjustment. They gave great notes and this show would not be nearly as strong as it is without their help. With the addition of the talented cast, we received more feedback defining the characters and their relationships with one another. The part of the process that proved difficult was filming the reading. It took a vast amount of creative problem-solving to tackle this process, especially when a transformer blew at a performer’s house and delayed a recording session.
I had no idea when I started writing this piece that our world, both theatrically and globally, would change as drastically as it has. Desiderium has themes of loss, love, and mourning, and right now we are experiencing these in a new way. After watching this show, I hope that audiences realize that it is alright to be sad. It is acceptable to be upset. It is perfectly normal to be hurting. Life is not all sunshine and lollipops. However, love is the thread running between me, you, and every other human. If we can remember this, we will survive.
Desiderium is defined as “an ardent desire or longing especially: a feeling of loss or grief for something lost.” When I first pitched this show to Monumental Theatre Company, it was untitled. Literally, the document was “Untitled Oh Hellos Musical.” It was only after we decided to move forward with the virtual reading that I thought: “Crap. I guess I gotta name it now.” I played with some names, but nothing stuck. Then, after a fervent, late-night rabbit hole that started with a Google search of “mourning,” “desiderium” came across the screen. I’m obsessed with the idea that language shapes our realities and that specific language holds more power than we understand. I love this word because it is not commonplace. It defines the exact emotion I am trying to encapsulate, but it is not familiar enough to carry any alternate meaning.
I was first introduced to the music of The Oh Hellos while on a date in 2016. While there wasn’t a second date, I found a new artist to play on repeat. Much like my last musical, Still Alive, which used the music of Jonathan Coulton, I wrote a book surrounding an existing discography. The story comes straight from my imagination. The music comes from Tyler and Maggie Heath of The Oh Hellos.
The challenge was to craft language that matched the lyrics. The book of Still Alive (a robot/zombie apocalypse-survival musical) used highly theatrical words, bursting with camp. For Desiderium, the language needed to be more understated, more personal. One of my favorite lyrics in this musical is from the song “I Have Made Mistakes.” “The sun it does not cause us to grow. / It is the rain that will strengthen your soul. / It will make you whole.” I had to delve a bit deeper and allow for softer language to aid these characters that struggled to find common ground in their mourning.
I contacted the management of The Oh Hellos (shoutout to Brad!) about a year and a half ago asking for permission to create a musical using their songs. That email exchange led to a casual “Okay, but get back to me if something actually happens.” Once we had the reading set in stone, The Oh Hellos team and Actors Equity both gave the green light. We are excited to have the reading available on Monumental’s Facebook page for four days following the live stream.
The cast and crew did a remarkable job. I am so proud of the work they put in, and I am so grateful that they went on this journey with me. Each member of the seven-person ensemble of actors gives a phenomenal performance. We have a rotating orchestra of twelve instrumentalists led by Marika Countouris, who, in addition to music directing, arranged each song for our reading. The result is a hauntingly beautiful score that brings the script to life.
I recently read Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, and one of the chapters is about the virtue of Hope. She writes: “All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time.” It is this ideal that I strive to uphold in Desiderium. We are human beings, full of a myriad of extraordinary and powerful emotions. Our time on this earth is limited, so let’s use it to flood our world with love and compassion.
Beginning July 20, 2020, at 8 pm, Disiderium will be read on Facebook Live from Monumental’s Facebook page and will run 90 minutes. A talkback with the cast and creative team will immediately follow the performance on the live stream. The performance will be available on Monumental’s Facebook until Friday, July 24.