Mr. Zero is not pleased. A despondent loser, he trundles mechanically through his miserable life and deals despairingly with his miserable wife. In a rage after losing a job he previously held for 25 years to an adding machine (an old calculator), he decides to murder his boss. In case you were not already convinced, no, he is not a traditional musical star. But Adding Machine: The Musical, a darkly comic and doubtlessly evocative new musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s play opening at Kiplinger Theater this Friday, likes its humor black, and Zero’s just the man for the job.
When pressed to describe the musical in a word, Alexander Quilty ’15, who plays the tormented Mr. Zero, described it as “weird.” Given more thought, his answer was a bit less controversial: “intriguing.” And these characteristics certainly aren’t negative: Adding Machine is a truly fascinating character study. As musical director Michael Doliner ’13 relates, it’s a “huge theatrical experience.”
The play’s technical elements are essential to bringing its unique story to life. Doliner says these elements make the musical “an entirely new sort of show.” As Doliner explained, he has met with the show’s professional designers every week for over eight months, planning and perfecting its scenery, costumes and lighting. All of this planning takes a lot of work, but Doliner, who has devoted 24 hours per week to the show, sacrificing countless assignments along the way, says that though it is a lot to take on, it is “worth it if you love theater.”
The music of Adding Machine is every bit as innovative as its technical elements and just as arduous to perfect. The score, which has won a number of accolades, including a Drama Desk Award for “outstanding music,” incorporates elements of jazz, gospel and music best described as “undefined” as it weaves its way through the performance. Quilty calls it “the most difficult music [he’s] ever had to sing for a show,” in terms of rhythm, and Doliner admits that the “never-before-heard” tunes and eclectic harmonies caused some difficulties. But the show’s two music directors have aided in taming the complex score. As Doliner explains, this complexity is essential in that it “fuels the action and informs the work rather than just being incidental to the plot,” while Quilty acknowledges that after months of practice, the pieces take on “a certain momentum” unique to this musical.
It may at first seem somewhat peculiar to see such inventive efforts applied to a musical that was adapted from a play written in 1923. But Doliner believes that the musical is just as relevant today as ever, if not more so. “We live in a time where technology is replacing people, where people are being replaced by computers and recorded messages,” he explains. “Adding Machine challenges us to take charge of our lives again.” One repeated line in the play, “I didn’t have the nerve,” epitomizes this modern societal condition — and, as Quilty explains, Mr. Zero’s lack of nerve causes the viewer to consider “having the gumption to go out and change instead of waiting for something to happen to you, and then, when it doesn’t, being shocked and disappointed.”
Beyond this social message, though, Doliner believes that Adding Machine is most important because it prompts the viewer “to expect more from musical theater.” Adding Machine’s fascinatingly frank look at the modern condition shows that the musical “can really be an important medium for communicating to a lot of people.” It may be no West Side Story, then, but Adding Machine will nevertheless make you laugh as it forces you take a serious look at the human cost of technological advancement.
Adding Machine premieres at the Schwartz Center this Friday at 7:30 p.m. and runs until December 1.