A Completely Surreal Icelandic Musical Has One of the Best Soundtracks of the Year


Throughout history, musicals have come with some pretty outrageous premises. But it’s safe to say that none before Revolution In The Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter — a rock musical written by a little-known, reclusive Icelandic songwriter — involved a political struggle and a love triangle taking place in a Horton Hears a Who-like world on the elbow of a furniture painter.

Perhaps the most interesting twist is the fact that said musical, which begins performances at the Minetta Lane Theater on the 31st and officially opens on August 13th, has attracted the talents of two Tony winners — star Cady Huffman (The Producers, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Iron Chef) and lighting director Jeff Croiter (Peter and the Starcatcher) — along with actors Kate Shindle, Patrick Boll and Brad Nacht; veteran West End choreographer Lee Proud (Billy Elliot, Carousel, Hairspray); and costume design from longtime Bjork collaborators Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (aka Shoplifter) and Edda Gudmundsdottir.

One could be forgiven for wondering how such talent was attracted to such an unusual story — which, to make it even odder, takes place against the backdrop of a once-idyllic community’s false prosperity, ultimate ruin and rebirth at the hands of a power-mad mayor, a scenario clearly influenced by Iceland’s devastating financial crisis of 2008. And also, what could give the producers the confidence to launch such an unusual show in the theater capital of the world?

The answer, according to nearly all involved, is the music, which has a rare maturity and depth, especially for someone who is basically a completely unknown writer. The soundtrack, recently released on Mother West Records, stands on its own as an album, with or without the story line.

“The music is very sensual and powerful and emotive,” says Proud, who has worked in theater for most of his career but also fronted a band called the Proud Ones in the ’90s (which opened a show for David Bowie when original opener Morrissey fell ill). “It has this kind of tragicomic feel which is very human, and brings out very human emotions.”

“Singing it makes me feel like a rock star,” Huffman says.

The songs were written over the past few years by Ívar Páll Jónsson, and contain elements of Radiohead, David Bowie, Grizzly Bear, the Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens and many others — but they also maintain a musical’s sensibility, narrative and ensemble performances. There are soaring, anthemic moments, pop songs, acoustic numbers and fully-fledged arrangements, performed on album by a crack Icelandic band with guest vocalists Liam McCormick (The Family Crest), Hjalti Þorkelsson (Múgsefjun), Sigríður Thorlacius (Hjaltalín) and others — and, for the show, by a band assembled by Magnetic Fields collaborator Charles Newman.

Jónsson fronted a band called Blome in the 1990s, releasing one album and performing one gig before “I decided being a frontman isn’t for me,” he says. “I’m more of an introverted personality.” He worked as a journalist in the following years while writing “thousands of songs,” he says, before he awoke one morning in 2011 “at 4 a.m. and started writing, and here we are.”

Well, not quite. Jónsson’s younger brother Gulli pushed the project along and rallied forces. He enlisted a friend of a friend named Karl Pétur Jónsson (no direct relation; seemingly everyone in Iceland knows each other and/or is related), who helped bring in director Bergur Þór Ingólfsson, who’d directed *Mary Poppins* — the most well-attended and highest-grossing Icelandic musical of all time — which had been choreographed by Proud. Karl, who came from a corporate-PR background but ran an Icelandic theater company for several years, was originally a consultant but, with Theater Mogul, has become the show’s producer.

As if such a show didn’t already face enough challenges, there was the matter of where to open it. In Iceland, the potential audience for anything, let alone an offbeat rock musical, is only so big: according to Statistics Iceland, the country’s entire population at the end of June was 327,050. The production of “Mary Poppins” that included Ingólfsson and Proud ran for a year and was, numerically anyway, seen by one-fifth of the country’s entire population — but do the math on that.

The producers originally set their sights on London, but “the show had a certain Off-Broadway flavor to it, and a lot of quirky musicals have come up in New York that way,” Karl says. “It seemed like the local producers we talked to were more in tune with the idea and the music, and appreciated the surreal humor of it.”

While the musical is filled with signature Icelandic eccentricity and a sense of the surreal that often appears in work from the country, how is that going to play here in the States, where (to put it mildly) we tend to take things a bit more literally? More specifically, why on earth is it set on an elbow?

“I’m fascinated by the surreal,” Ívar says. “And the setting allows me to be more abstract — it doesn’t tie the story to a specific place or any specific culture. It’s a universal story.”

“Of course, it’s a metaphor for Iceland,” Ingólfsson says. “It’s a little place where big things happen: [In 2008], the world was waiting for our economy to collapse. Every life is a universe.”

How it all plays out onstage was still a work in progress earlier this month. The production has surmounted many of the challenges of working on such a small stage — which must hold both the band and a dozen-odd actors — with vividly designed projections that were shot at the *Lazy Town* studios in Iceland. The script, as with most budding musicals, was continually being revised.

Proud, perhaps more than anyone, had his work cut out for him. “My first thought when I heard the music was, ‘How the hell do these people dance? How do they move?’ You have to come up with a kind of vocabulary of movement that hasn’t been seen, because this place doesn’t really exist. It feels very Icelandic because it’s quirky, but we have to present it to an American audience in a way that is understandable but also different and entertaining.

“There was no reference point for a show like this,” he says. “We’re working with a complete blank canvas.”

But the songs come vividly to life in the voices of the ensemble, and seeing the collision of traditional theater elements with rock gave the production a promising frisson.

And while everyone in this unusual circle of personalities is all too aware of the risks involved in presenting New York with a rock musical set in a tiny world on someone’s elbow written by an unknown Icelandic composer, there’s an optimistic, going-for-broke camaraderie rising even on this muggy July afternoon.

“Even with its funny long title, it’s exciting and attention-grabbing,” Huffman says. “Minetta Lane is known for doing interesting pieces, and that’s what the beauty of Off-Broadway: being allowed to do anything. A smaller theater is much more conducive to creativity.”

“I would have loved being in a room when Cameron Mackintosh said he was doing a musical about cats,” Karl says. “You never achieve anything without taking risks.”

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