Robbie Schaefer, a founder of the Northern Virginia-based folk band Eddie from Ohio, has turned to the theater stage to explore his relationship with his father — a successful and demanding patriarch with a secret past.
The result is the musical “Light Years,” which begins previews Feb. 6 at Signature Theatre in Arlington. It draws on Schaefer’s life as a musician in the folk/indie scene, and on the long-hidden story that his father kept from his children.
It was only a dozen years ago that Schaefer, 51, began to uncover his father’s hidden history. But Konnie Schaefer remained tight-lipped about much of his background and the trauma he had experienced. And that story and the distance in the father-son relationship formed the foundation for “Light Years,” which became a story of coming of age and coming to terms.
“This was a man who was a successful economist for the U.S. government and for the United Nations before building his own private fiber optics company from scratch … but there was a secret,” Schaefer said during a break from rehearsals last week.
“The play traces much of my father’s story, as much of it that fits into a play,” he said. “He had a very confusing past to me, because he always referred to his family as having Austrian-Hungarian roots, which wasn’t exactly true. My grandfather had gone to university in Vienna, but my father was born in Romania in 1936.”
Shortly after that the family was on the run, ending up in a concentration camp in Transnistria. The immediate family — father, mother and two kids, one of them Konnie — survived. After being turned away by British soldiers at Haifa harbor and sent to a refugee camp on Cyprus, they made it to pre-state Israel. Eventually Konnie left to attend college in the United States and stayed.
The scene between father and son plays out with dialogue sandwiched between music: Schaefer wants to break away and become a musician. His father won’t have it: Why can’t he get a steady job, Konnie wonders, teach English and play guitar on weekends. But, like many parent-child conversations, the distance is insurmountable. They can’t understand one another, let alone talk it out.
The Schaefers settled in McLean, when Robbie Schaefer was in elementary school. He played guitar in some childhood and high school rock bands, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Rodef Shalom, played Snoopy in a school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Then he followed his father’s path into a major in telecommunications at James Madison University, simply as a way to please and get closer to him.
By that time, he was gigging almost every weekend with college bands. His career-track job lasted a mere five months before he left to navigate the coffee house circuit. Eventually he and a pal formed Eddie from Ohio, which built a respectable following and recorded nearly a dozen albums.
Then the prolific songwriter and performer fell into a creative slump. His father died three years ago. Six months after that, “I knew I had to create space in my life for whatever that next creative thing was going to be, even though I didn’t know what it was,” he says.
There were a few songs and “some things, I’ll call them essays, they’re little pieces. Something else was happening,” Schaefer says. “I wasn’t interested in creating another album and going on tour. I think because it belonged here” and he gestures at the Signature Theatre.
He gave himself the time to ruminate on those songs and written pieces, crafting them into a narrative show.
“As soon as that happened, it became clear that this was a theater piece, a musical,” Schaefer says, looking decidedly nontheatrical in a plaid flannel shirt over black denim jeans and red Converse sneakers. “I realized, ‘Oh, this is about my father and me and his story.’ Then I had to go through the process of asking about his story. One thread in the show is about me discovering his story. But it’s also a father-son relationship story.”
Originally a solo piece, “Light Years” now features three main performers sharing the lead as Robbie — a young, a middle and a present-day Robbie (he plays himself). The musical features folk/indie ballads and pop-infused numbers that are heartfelt expressions of the father-and-son struggles and the larger refugee tale. Asked if he would have wanted his father there, to see his first musical, Schaefer takes a deep breath.
“No. Something like this would have embarrassed him.”
Schaefer sees “Light Years” as a story suited to our moment of refugee crises in North America and Europe. But aside from its universal appeal, “Light Years” sings with a distinctively Jewish voice.
“My father’s a Holocaust survivor — and I never would have called him that only 10 years ago,” he says. I never thought of him that way. And that was on purpose. He didn’t want to be pitied. He didn’t want to be felt sorry for. He built a new life in America and he was extremely successful. … It’s totally the American story.”
And it’s part of the dichotomy Schaefer still wrestles with: “He both wanted his children to have it easy, yet he wanted us to get real jobs so we would be taken care of. Because you never know when the world could come tumbling down.”
“Light Years,” Feb. 6-March 4; music, lyrics and book by Robbie Schaefer; at Signature Theatre’s MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.