One day, when Nick Blaemire was 12, he called his parents and asked them to pick him up early from Hebrew school at Temple Sinai in the District. His father’s good friend had just died very suddenly of cancer.
“I couldn’t go to the funeral because I had Hebrew school,” Blaemire said. “It was a moment of ‘Wait, there’s a God who is looking out for us, but these kind of things still happen?’ It was one of my first moments realizing that the world is unfair. It made the whole process of the bar mitzvah rite of passage just seem arbitrary.”
The playwright and composer, now 30, recalls the very adult conversations he had with his parents about belief, religion and the purpose of life. Some of those same questions and thoughts have made their way into Blaemire’s latest work, the world-premiere of Soon, a small four-person musical that runs at Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre through April 26.
Soon is about Charlie, a young woman who during what is the hottest summer in human history, decides to take to her couch and turn on CNN. She’s going to sit the whole thing out. There she soothes herself with Wolf Blitzer, a fish named Herschel and peanut butter. Outside, in the apocalyptic doom of what might be the end of the world, life goes on, and those who love her most try to convince her to leave her comfy nest and do something, anything. The chamber-sized drama is narrative-driven, but it’s also, taking into account Blaemire’s many talents and interests, a musical. And the triple-threat that he is, this one-time child actor in local productions at Rockville’s Musical Theatre Center, Blaemire has written the book, music and lyrics. His longtime friend from MTC Matthew Gardiner directs.
This isn’t Blaemire’s first foray into playwriting. That came before he finished his theater major at the University of Michigan. The idea for Glory Days, Blaemire’s first collaboration with Signature, under the imprimatur of its longtime director Eric Schaeffer, grew from his personal friendships cultivated at MTC, where starting in his sophomore year of high school he was singing and dancing in shows like Grease, A Chorus Line and West Side Story.
“I cut my musical theater chops there,” Blaemire said. “The guys I met in that program became like brothers to me and served as the inspiration for the show Glory Days. Written during his freshman year of college with his friend James Gardiner, it made its way to a very short-lived Broadway run in January 2008. While unsuccessful like many Broadway tryouts, that experience became a master class in musical theater writing and show creation for Blaemire and Gardiner, under the tutelage of mentor Schaeffer, who said he is thrilled to have Blaemire back in the fold working at Signature again.
One day during a summer workshop for budding theater professionals, Blaemire was tinkering around on a piano, he reported, when Schaeffer came in and asked, “What’s that?” Blaemire and Gardiner told him their idea for a show and sent the duo off to meet Broadway composer Richard Maltby, probably best known for Ain’t Misbehavin.’.Then Blaemire said Schaeffer took him under his wing, gave him assignments and deadlines and every couple of months, the college theater major would take a road trip back home to meet with Schaeffer and work on the show. While Glory Days lives in ignominy, closing after one night after an earlier run in Arlington at Signature, that didn’t stop Blaemire from pushing on writing the book, lyrics and music for this latest production, his second at Signature.
While not typical song-and-dance material, Soon’s themes and characters are close to Blaemire’s heart. And the questions it wrestles with are similar to those that he found challenging as he faced his bar mitzvah year. At 13, he ultimately chose not to become a bar mitzvah because he had more questions than answers.
“My parents are incredibly supportive,” he said. “Obviously they’ve supported my love for making things. So they let me find my own version of religion. It was really about creating a more personalized version of what I believed, that was major for me and really helped me start seeing myself as a citizen of the universe as opposed to on some very specific pre-laid track.”
So, the Jewish boy from Bethesda who has made theater, music (he has an “alt-nerd” band called The Hustle) and performed, most recently in the Broadway and national touring productions of Godspell, Cry Baby and Altar Boyz, wants to find a way to change the world or at least a tiny piece of it with song and story and he credits his parents, Joanna Caplan and Bob Blaemire, for a large part of who he is today.
His struggle with the meaning and purpose of life in the face of death that he encountered as he neared 13 is the struggle his character Charlie wrestles with as she desires to sit out the apocalypse. Blaemire has set up a struggle between Charlie and her boyfriend, who believes that even if the world is ending, he still has much to do, more to accomplish, to repair, to fix, to learn, to grow into. It’s the existential struggle, the why question, in a sense, played out with song, music and drama that Blaemire hopes is very accessible to his generation of 20- and 30-somethings.
“I feel this show is a constant reminder of how powerless I feel about what’s happening both to society and to the planet,” he said. “This is the best way I know to create awareness of that and also raise the human questions of what we do.”
Is it a Jewish show? Not necessarily, but does it contain a Jewish sensibility, particularly when it comes to tikkun olam, repair of the world, which Blaemire learned about in Hebrew school and practices in creating experiences that he hopes not only entertain, but also affect people and help them consider change.
“Religion plays a huge part in the show,” Blaemire said. “I came to it by accident: How can we talk about faith in yourself if we can’t talk about faith in everything? That is the thing that I’ve taken from Judaism in every encounter I’ve had: They’re social teachings about how we lives as much as they are about an explanation as to why we’re here.
“Ultimately, we’re all trying to figure out how to live this right,” said Blaemire.
“Soon,” world premiere, Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre through April 26, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets begin at $40. Call (703) 537-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.