La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Hundred Days’ a musical memoir born from passion and apprehension
From the moment Shaun and Abigail Bengson met 11 years ago, there was a third wheel in their relationship — a matter for no small measure of stress and apprehension.
In fact, the matter was stress and apprehension — a kind of shared existential terror that the two seemed to fall into as deeply as they fell for each other.
“It happened immediately with our feeling in love,” Shaun Bengson says now. “Just becoming consumed with fear and being paralyzed by it.”
There’s something to be said for an affection so all-encompassing that it can’t be separated from the dread of losing one another. And at the very least, for Abigail and Shaun, that feeling sparked a greater appreciation for how tenuous our hold on existence can be.
As Shaun puts it: “We became abundantly aware of each other’s fragility,” and by extension the reality of that fact “for all of us walking this planet.”
The feeling also sparked the creation of art: an autobiographical live piece called “Hundred Days” that’s now receiving its latest production — and the first since its off-Broadway premiere last year with New York Theatre Workshop — at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse.
The title of the show takes its cues from a hypothetical born of the Bengsons’ trepidation: What would you do, and how would you live your life, if you had only 100 days remaining?
The notion of precious time passing, and of how to make the most of one’s days, seems a natural fit for theater — a creative form whose very evanescence is part of its attraction, and its magic.
It’s also an idea that’s been explored and expressed memorably in musical theater via everything from the “Hello, Dolly!” standard “Before the Parade Passes By” to the “Rent” anthem “Seasons of Love,” with its parsing of a year down to 525,600 blink-and-they’re-gone minutes.
But the approach taken by The Bengsons — the pair’s chosen stage name — brings an extra measure of intimacy and immediacy: Not only did they create “Hundred Days” as a reflection on their own lives, but they star in the show as well.
The work by the two folk-punk musicians has been called a “musical memoir,” although Shaun says they prefer the term “theatrical concert.”
The show is not by any stretch a book musical: Its entire story is told through the songs, which will be released this Friday on a cast album recorded during the 2017 run at New York Theatre Workshop.
Suffice to say, this is not a work with an explicit, conventional dramatic arc. And yet it’s not “an experimental tone poem” either, Shaun is quick to clarify.
“It definitely has a narrative, a story we walk you through,” he says. “It’s us doing us through storytelling.”
He cites as a kindred artistic soul the composer Dave Malloy (best-known for the much-admired immersive Broadway show “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”) and his recent song cycle “Ghost Quartet,” which likewise was staged at New York Theatre Workshop.
Shaun also reacts enthusiastically to a mention of “Passing Strange,” the groundbreaking, autobiographical Broadway musical by the composer-writer-actor Stew.
In general, he and Abigail gravitate to work that is “trying to break open this form,” Shaun says.
“I feel there’s a much wider range of music that can exist in theater.”
Finding their voices
The two, it turns out, have been working on “Hundred Days” from “pretty much the first moment we fell in love,” at a band rehearsal more than a decade ago, Shaun says.
An earlier incarnation was staged close to five years ago in San Francisco. But after further revisions, “we finally felt that by the time we got to New York Theatre Workshop, this is what we meant.” (That production led to a prestigious Lucille Lortel Award nomination.)
The pair created the piece with the playwright Sarah Gancher, who conveniently lives just across the hall from them in a Queens apartment building.
“Hundred Days” is directed by the University of California San Diego grad and top New York theater pro Anne Kauffman, with movement direction by Sonya Tayeh, whose work was seen locally with the Old Globe’s 2013 production of “The Last Goodbye.”
Shaun and Abigail, both of whom sing and play guitar, appear alongside Ashley Baier (drums/percussion), El Beh (cello), Barrie Lobo McLain (vocals/accordion/guitar) and Reggie D. White (vocals/keys).
As Shaun talks by phone about the show on a mid-September afternoon, Abigail is otherwise engaged with the couple’s young son, who has come down with a fever.
The fact the couple not only weathered the three “emotionally fraught” weeks of courtship that “Hundred Days” documents — and then got married and, eventually, became parents — would seem to indicate that love triumphed over fear.
And Shaun does allow that the emotional state depicted in the show “is not totally where I am now.”
But the feelings that stirred the work’s creation can’t necessarily be cast off with ease. Part of the inspiration behind “Hundred Days” was a dream Abigail had as a teen-ager that the love of her life would have only 100 days left on Earth by the time they met.
And part of her more general feeling of unease had to do with a long-ago family tragedy — one that’s explored more deeply in “The Lucky Ones,” a piece The Bengsons premiered just a few months ago in New York.
That work, along with “Hundred Days,” is part of a developing trilogy that also will include a piece tentatively called “Ohio” (after Shaun’s home state) and rooted in struggles with spirituality.
“Abigail went through some pretty traumatic experiences early in life — some people didn’t make it out, and others were hospitalized,” as Shaun puts it. “And I’ve also had people in my life who had close calls.
“So we both became really kind of convinced that it was going to happen.”
And yet in creating “Hundred Days,” he says, “what gave us some freedom was to say, ‘OK, what if it does happen?’ And then move on from there.
“The show is saying: Yes, this is true. Now what are you going to do about it?”
When: Previews begin Sept. 22. Opens Sept. 30. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 21.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District.
Phone: (858) 550-1010
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