This evening’s debut of “The Mystery of the Murders in the Tent” at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theater is truly a culmination of fortunate events — though it didn’t feel so fortunate along the way.
AHS sophomore and playwright Eliza Domingos, 16, had been a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eighth grader when she was first enraptured by the narratives Daniel Handler, then under the pen name Lemony Snicket, wove throughout his “A Series of Unfortunate Events” novels.
“I thought it would be cool to write a musical about that, because it seems like it would be a good show in itself,” she said.
At that time, Domingos used that idea as inspiration for a creative writing exercise in class. That, in turn, led to her developing the concept further.
“My project was to do a read-through of my show with full music and cast, which we actually did!” she recalled, with some nostalgia. In fact, many of her classmates who participated in that read-through would later become cast members in this week’s show. By about February of this year, midway into her high school career, Domingos began forging relationships to take her piece to the stage.
And it almost worked.
“We were almost done blocking the show — about a month ago — when we got a letter saying we had seven days to cease and desist or they would sue the school and [AHS theatre director] Logan [Carter],” Domingos said.
For a fleeting moment, there was energy to fight the attorney of the author who makes on-screen appearances in the Netflix adaptation of his book series, especially since there was never any intention to actually sell tickets to the production. It was, however, fleeting.
“We decided, ‘Just maybe rewriting the story would be best,’” Domingos recalled. “So we rewrote a whole story around the songs, because we didn’t want to get rid of the songs, and yeah — we just basically went from there. We just kept moving on. There’s nothing more you can really do.”
Except there was much more to do. Accounting for the week-long break for Thanksgiving in the school district’s calendar, Domingos estimated about three weeks for the rewriting, reblocking and rebranding the show. Ultimately, however, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery and a story about a circus. Those are two very specific things; I don’t know why,” she said with a chuckle. “But this gave me the perfect opportunity to do it. It went through a lot of drafts. Overall, I’m really, really proud of the story we have right now.”
That rewrite was far from a solo endeavor, she noted.
“We were all sad. We were almost done; they were memorizing their lines,” she said of her cast when the school received the cease-and-desist letter. “They were super helpful, and I’m very grateful for that. They were giving me story ideas, line ideas, character ideas. It was amazing at how well they responded and how well they adapted to it and just left the old show for this new one — and how positively they’re taking it right now.”
The cast is relatively small for an Aspen High School theater production, but Domingos prefers it that way, especially given the circumstances.
“They’re making it work; they’re making it feel like a full 20-person ensemble, even though there are only 10, 11 of them,” she beamed, listening to the final dress rehearsal through a wall adjacent to the Black Box Theater. “I actually prefer a smaller cast. I feel like we’ve bonded more as a family, I guess. Especially over this whole cease and desist thing, we all came together to team up, make a whole new story, and it just feels like we’re a big family now.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We’ve been through a lot, but it’s a beautiful show. I’m so proud of how it turned out,” AHS junior Ella Joseph said. Joseph has taken on most roles of a stage manager, minus actually giving real-time cues to the technical crew during performances. Domingos prefers to call her the “tech guru,” much to Joseph’s liking. In fact, the entire production, even with legal threats, has been to her liking.
“This has been an amazing opportunity. I’ve never been able to bring a show from paper to the stage like this. We had nothing to go off of; it was completely out of [Domingos’] brain. This is my 10th show, I think, that I’ve done crew for, and this is something else,” she said. “I’ve been in theater with everybody here for the last couple years, and this has been awesome.”
Even for the villain of the show — though Bodhi Wight hardly emits a nefarious energy in off-stage — helping co-create and witness the newest iteration of the show has been an opportunity for friendship and professionalism.
“We all kind of freaked out when we had to rewrite the play, and it was a little crazy, but we all did pull together,” he said. “It was actually really fascinating to see the creative process and watch as our director and our writer had to pull something together, and in my opinion, it came out even greater than the original.”
In addition to a show that outshines its original version by all accounts, “The Mystery of the Murders in the Tent” was first and foremost a learning experience that further fueled already existing passions. Domingos, for instance, found new arenas in the theater industry to explore, even after her 27th show in the valley.
“I try to do just as much as I can. I thoroughly believe if anyone wants to go into this business, whether it’s tech or on stage, they should always try the other side of it, too, to see if they would enjoy it more. That’s what I'm experiencing right now,” she said, though she admitted she misses being on stage. “Even though, it’s just glorious to see this come together; it’s magical. It’s just a surreal experience, and I guess that’s why I want to be in theater: It feels so good.”
Even for Sarah Stevens, who has composed two musicals of her own and collaborated with Domingos to create the score for the brand-new musical, “The Mystery of the Murder in the Tent” created a new experience — namely, collaboration.
“We kind of made it up as we went along; we figured it out. It was really, it was a fascinating process because I didn’t know how much Eliza had already visualized. She had a visual picture of it, but hadn’t set anything to melodies, so I had to extract from Eliza: What are you hearing? What feel? What tempo? Minor keys or major keys?’,” she said, adding that Domingos introduced her to new musicals throughout that process. “Then I would say, ‘Well, how about this?’ Usually, we were really in sync. Every once in a while, though, she would go, ‘No, that’s not what it sounds like.’ And I would say, ‘OK, let’s try something different.’ There was so much give and take in the composing.”
Domingos, of course, does not have a composition background, which is part of the reason she calls her parternship with Stevens “a blessing.” Nor does she have a dance background, which is why having a dear friend, 15-year-old Emma Boucher, as both a lead actor and dance choreographer, has added another level of dynamics to her show.
“I haven’t actually ever done a big choreography show before like this,” Boucher said, despite dance being a part of her life for more than a decade. “ We worked with varying degrees of dance training — abilities — so that was interesting to work with, but it was a lot of fun. I had a great experience.”
Despite the legal threats based on exclusivity rights, it was the subsequent inclusivity in the process of rewriting and producing something completely original that made this show so special.
“People I’ve never talked to before, they know about it,” Domingos said. “It’s just fun to get to see people like your work and see people actually perform your work. As much as I thought about this show in my head, I could never have seen it [like this].”