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Melanie Marnich’s ‘Shining Lives’ transformed into new musical

In 2009 I saw a lovely Rivendell Theatre production of “These Shining Lives,” a play by Melanie Marnich that was so heartbreaking, and so lyrical, that it remained fixed in my memory.

I went back to my review of the show recently and found these words: “The play is so poignantly rendered that you can almost hear the clocks of the characters’ lives ticking away. And while it is filled with documentary elements, Marnich has personalized the story in a way that makes it far more than just a horrible example of industrial abuse and the quest for legal justice.”

The strange thing is that I kept recalling the play as a chamber musical, even though that was not the case. As it turns out, however, I was not alone. BJ Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre (which had initially commissioned the play), thought Marnich’s play would make a fine musical. And he acted on the idea. So now, “Shining Lives: A Musical,” with a book and lyrics (as well as direction) by Jessica Thebus, and music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, is about to receive its world premiere at Northlight.

‘SHINING LIVES: A MUSICAL’

When: Through June 14

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie

Tickets: $25 – $78

Info: (847) 673-6300; www.northlight.org

Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

Based on a true story, “Shining Lives” tells of the young women who worked at the Radium Dial Company factory in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s and early ’30s. Employment opportunities for women were limited at the time, so these well-paying jobs were greatly prized, and the money the women earned gave them a sense of independence, as well as the ability to indulge in little luxuries.

Their job? Paint the hour markings onto watch dials using a radium compound that glowed in the dark. They were told there was no evidence that radium could be harmful. Yet after a few years, the workers began to notice that their hands started glowing in the dark, and some of them developed serious problems, including jaw infections and bone pain. Local doctors prescribed aspirin. Only years later did they find a doctor who was willing to put his name on the line and diagnose the women with radium poisoning. With this knowledge, the women also decided to file a lawsuit against Radium Dial — a case that took years to resolve.

“Melanie Marnich’s language was so lyrical that it was a natural transition from play to musical,” said Thebus. “Initially we approached her to write the book for the musical herself, but she was too busy [as a writer for Showtime’s “The Affair” and HBO’s “Big Love”]. So I took it on.”

“Proving the case for these ‘radium girls’ was difficult because the poison affected people so differently. Some women got very ill quite quickly; for others it took a long time. And some, who only worked in the factory for a short period, never got cancer.”

Thebus, who had worked with sound designer and composer Andrew Pluess on many shows (including the 2002 hit, “Winesburg, Ohio”), asked him to come on board as a composer, collaborating with Amanda Dehnert, a fellow faculty member of hers at Northwestern University who often works at Lookingglass Theatre. And she gathered an impressive cast of four women who “had to be very different” — Johanna McKenzie Miller (who plays Catherine, who began work at the factory at 19, and died at the age of 34), Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia and Tiffany Topol — with a male contingent that includes Alex Goodrich, Erik Hellman and Matt Mueller.

Johanna McKenzie Miller in white dress, with Bri Sudia, Jess Godwin, Matt Mueller, Tiffant Topol in “Shining Lives: A Musical” at Northlight Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Johanna McKenzie Miller in white dress, with Bri Sudia, Jess Godwin, Matt Mueller, Tiffant Topol in “Shining Lives: A Musical” at Northlight Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“This is the story of young women who find their voices,” said Thebus. “And it is about how an ordinary person can become a hero. It’s so touching because here were these girls, many still in their teens, who were so proud of their jobs — working class girls with their first taste of autonomy, who could suddenly afford to buy earrings, and pearl necklaces, and gloves, and shoes and little fur collars. It should have been a story about freedom and a new-found sense of authority. And the first part of the show is that. But then there is the tragedy and the struggle. Their youth is such a big part of it, and here is one great irony: The factory where they worked was the town’s old high school, and they applied the radium powder seated at the former classroom desks. So it’s a ghost story in a way, too.”

In composing the show’s score, Pluess wanted to create “a period echo for the music, with an American folk feeling and the sounds of the 1920s and ’30s, including the advertising jungles heard during those early radio days. But as the play progresses into more psychological realism we also wanted to bring in a more modern sensibility.”

“The first song we wrote is still in the show,” said Pluess. “It’s about Catherine’s first day of work at the factory, when she meets her colleagues and receives training. The lyrics are almost verbatim from the play — ‘lip, dip, paint” — which is the rhythm by which they moistened their brushes and dipped them into the ink. The primary accompaniment for the musical is piano, but several of the actors also play instruments, from baritone ukelele to guitar, accordion and mandolin.”

Note: Among the many special events planned to complement the run of this show is one — at 2 p.m. June 2 at the Skokie Public Library, 5215 Oakton Ave., Skokie — that features Leonard and Ray Grossman, sons of the lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who represented the women in the case against Radium Dial Factory.