We live in an era when our devices seem like parts of the family. Siri and Alexa feel like reliable members of our households. We treat our Roomba vacuum cleaners like beloved pets. Some of us even name or personalize our devices to forge a stronger relationship.
Michael Arden, director of the Alliance Theatre’s “Maybe Happy Ending,” has tailored his car navigator along these lines. “I get directions in a South African accent. I went on a safari last year, and had an incredible guide from South Africa, so I’ve personalized it. The voice gives me a safe feeling.”
Directing “Maybe Happy Ending,” which makes its American premiere on Jan. 21, has Arden thinking about our relationship with devices — from their point of view. “What would they think? What is the world’s impression of us? If our iPhones had to restart civilization, would it be better than the world we created?”
With lyrics by Hue Park and music by Will Aronson, who co-wrote the book, “Maybe Happy Ending” offers a rare stage musical treatment of ideas more typically found in science fiction films and television. In the play’s Author’s Note, Aronson and Park write, “It’s easy to imagine a future when people and their electronic gadgets start to become indistinguishable. But underneath this, all the old human longings and fears and dreams are still there, unchanged — just maybe hidden from ourselves a bit more.”
Originally from South Korea, Park was a lyricist for K-Pop bands through the music producer Music Cube but relocated to study visual art at New York University. Aronson, a Harvard graduate originally from Connecticut, also studied at New York University and in the late 2000s composed music for a Korean musical.
“Going to Korea and having that experience, I realized, ‘This is an incredible industry here,’” says Aronson.
When their paths crossed in New York, Aronson and Park began writing songs together for fun, and eventually penned the hit Korean musical “Bungee Jump” before developing “Maybe Happy Ending.”
Part of the inspiration for the show came when Park visited a coffeeshop and heard the song “Everyday Robots” by Damon Albarn (front man of the rock bands Blur and Gorillaz). “I heard the line, ‘We are everyday robots in the process of getting home,’ and thought, what if we wrote a show about robots as we are? I sent an email to Will and we started to write the story together.”
Set in Seoul, Korea, 50 years in the future, “Maybe Happy Ending” depicts two robotic servants, Oliver and Claire (played by Kenny Tran and Cathy Ang), called “HelperBots.” Nearly identical to human beings, they are neighbors in an apartment building for obsolete models who “meet cute” because of a failing charger and end up on an unlikely road trip that leads to an unexpected romance.
Hikikomori, a cultural phenomenon that started in Japan in which people never leave their rooms, was an early inspiration for the musical.
“People are a lot more isolated from each other because of digital communication. Some people even stay in their rooms for years or decades and just order everything in,” says Park. “Lining up the story, we thought that these obsolete robots that are abandoned and isolated are like Hikikimori.”
Despite the show’s futuristic setting and premise, the music in “Maybe Happy Ending” is retro. Oliver has inherited his former owner’s love of classic jazz LPs, and the music includes big band-era pastiches from a fictional mid-20th century bandleader.
“We both are big fans of old-timey jazz tunes from the American songbook, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to embed that legacy in a 21st century musical,” Park says.
Big band music and other old-fashioned cultural signifiers helped bring their robot characters to life, says Aronson. “The robots are more innocent than us. Humanity has been around for a while, and we’re so cynical. This next generation of human-looking robots have an innocent way of connecting to the world, so we looked to the past for inspiration.”
Originally written in Korean, “Maybe Happy Ending” premiered in Seoul in 2016 and won six Korean Music Awards. Alliance Theatre goers are the first to see it in English, but the script has already won a Richard Rodgers Production Award in 2017.
Arden helped develop the English production. A two-time Tony Award nominee for directing revivals of “Spring Awakening” and “Once on This Island,” he admits to being initially uncertain about directing “Maybe Happy Ending.”
“The fact that it’s about robots I initially found off-putting. But they learn from people, so they’re like children — they’re the children of their owners. Once I got into that mindset, it became a show about us. And the score is incredible.” he adds. “It’s a show I want to hear every day.”
As it evolved, the English version diverged from the Korean one when they began working with Arden, says Aronson. “It’s not just (translating for) the American audience. We’d ask ourselves, ‘What are we trying to do, and can we execute it better?’”
For instance, the Korean version mentions an incident from Claire’s past that is shown in flashback in the English version. “In Korean culture, they like to allude to something rather than see the drama happen,” Arden says. “We’d rather see the thing that happened. That seems very American.”
Aronson also contributed to the play’s English lyrics.
“Lyrics in Korean have no rhymes — it sounds goofy in Korean,” says Park. “Translating the lyrics to English was about expressing emotions and saying things in interesting ways, but the rhyming was Will’s contribution.”
Robots serving as metaphors for human beings is a familiar sci-fi trope, but giving it a musical treatment breaks new ground. The creators of “Maybe Happy Ending” are confident audiences will connect to the show’s characters, who may be reminiscent of things as close as the phones or laptops at your fingertips.
‘Maybe Happy Ending.’ Jan. 21-Feb. 16. $10-$85. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.
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