Many remember Sept. 11, 2001, vividly, while some learned about it from their parents or in the classroom. That day has become part of American history, and for better or for worse, has changed our lives and brought us together. This togetherness will be ever more present in Fuse Productions’ “The New Normal: A Spiritual Response in Words and Music” to be staged at the State Theatre on Sept. 11.
Written and directed by Richard Biever, “The New Normal” recounts how the world came together in the aftermath of 9/11. Woven throughout the show are words spoken immediately after the tragedy and theater songs.
As actors in “The New Normal,” the cast members are not portraying specific victims of the terrorist plot, but they place themselves in the aftermath of the tragedy by sharing stories of real people whose lives were forever changed that day, those who lost their lives, and those who were left to find meaning in the world and continue on.
One of those actors is Martha Traverse, who has performed on Broadway and with regional theater and national tours. She said she has had many opportunities to continue her passion, and to perform and direct as an avocation.
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“I was living in Pennsylvania with my young son, Jason,” Traverse said. “His father was still living in New York City and worked downtown. It took hours to finally get through to find out he was safe on the Upper East Side — shaken up and distraught, like all New Yorkers and all America — but safe.”
James McCready has played Leo Bloom in State College Community Theatre’s production of “The Producers,” Rooster in Fuse Productions’ “Annie” and Seymore in SCCT’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” to name a few.
McCready was in seventh grade. It started out as a picture-perfect, normal day. He had his picture taken in the morning, and when he returned to class, the news coverage was on television.
“I didn’t know what I was looking at. I really didn’t have a way to gauge what was going on,” he said. “The rest of the day was spent going from class to class watching it on TV — watching the towers fall. But I still have the photo — a picture of me just moments before finding out, before everything changed.”
The “New Normal” cast is made up of three women, two men and two children. All have the same role in sending the message and conveying the emotions to the audience. Each cast member will have their moment to deliver lines taken from forum posts and interviews immediately after 9/11 and to deliver the words with the urgent compassion with which they were written.
To coincide with these thoughts and prayers that were being sent out, Biever strategically picked songs, such as “Children Will Listen” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which becomes a plea for us to be careful about we do and say, because our children are listening and learning — during a tragedy or otherwise. All of the songs selected for this production, including “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” and “No One is Alone” from “Into the Woods,” are combined with writings of spiritual leaders from around the globe and from all religions.
For McCready, one of the main messages is about community. In the weeks and months following 9/11, America became united, whether it be in sorrow, anger or confusion. There was a collective response, as people were talking to each other and helping each other.
“Now, 13 years later, I think we need to remember that again,” he said. “It seems we are back to a divided country: blue vs. red, left vs. right, blaming each other. Even in the face of more tragedy — school shootings, bombings, riots, war — the nation is split in really aggressive ways. We’ve gone back to how we were. We’ve settled down, which is good in a way, but we shouldn’t forget that unity.”
Biever said the show began as a short concert in response to the attacks and grew because audiences responded to it.
“ ‘The New Normal’ is very personal and close to my heart,” he said. “I’m struck by how relevant the show is after all these years. The wars and strife that continue to rage make the show seem as current as it did 13 years ago. I guess that’s what makes me proudest of all.”
“Richard Biever is the pre-eminent musical coach and director,” Traverse said. “We each are given a number of inspiring and sometimes heart-wrenching passages to read and sing, imparting our own personal approach to the material. He shares his insights with the cast, so we are all committed to instilling a sense of community, spiritual growth, pride in our country’s steadfastness and faith in the goodness of humanity.”
A unique production such as this has the power to change lives, and McCready said he believes a wide range of emotions will be felt by all who attend.
“In the end, the final hope is that we all feel united, that we all feel hope and love, and also a sense of humanity in a time when it feels like the world is still slowly falling apart,” McCready said.
Despite the topic, Biever said he believes the show will give the audience hope that solutions to even the most difficult problems are possible.
“It shows how people processed 9/11 and gives the audience time to process as well,” he said.
“We are hoping that word of mouth after last year’s performance may bring a wide spectrum of folks,” Traverse said. “ ‘The New Normal’ is not just the post-9/11 American way of life; it applies to everyone.”