In browsing through the Fringe Festival shows, the picture for Fireflower by Miniature Moon quickly caught my attention. Then I read the description: An original musical comedy set in a 1980s video game. Follow a plucky hero as he gathers a group of friends on his quest to save the princess. Accompanied by an original 8-bit score. Fun for all ages! Sold! I put it on my must-see list. Writer Marty Brueggemann was nice enough to answer some questions for me, so you’ll find those below, along with my review at the end.
Q. What inspired you to write Fireflower?
A. I’ve wanted to write musicals since I was a kid and finally had the honor to direct an original musical in 2009 with some close friends. Since then I’ve kept a list in my back pocket with concepts for prospective musicals, with the intention to produce one for the MN Fringe Festival. Most of the ideas on the list weren’t contained or lean enough for a Fringe show and so I continued on with other projects. My friends and I were engineering a record at our studio when an idea fell into my brain. At first it seemed so obvious I almost dismissed it, assuming it must have been done; what if the simple story of the original Super Mario Bros were told as a romantic, Wizard of Oz-style musical? What if the underscore were sequenced in 8-bit? What if the sets moved via Kurokos (Kabuki performers clad fully in black) to create the sensation of a scrolling game? I knew the last element had been done, I’d seen a brief Youtube video of a talent show where a group simulated Mario with Kurokos, but searched and couldn’t find any account of a fully-fledged musical. The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was the perfect Fringe show waiting to happen and the more driven I was to write and direct it. In many ways I’ve been preparing to write this show my whole life.
Like many, I’ve always loved the original Super Mario Bros, and a few years ago I’d even composed a suite of 8-bit music dedicated to the Mario music of Koji Kondo. When I recorded my first EP in 2008, one of the songs was actually a story about Mario & Luigi. I’ve also watched and worshiped The Wizard of Oz since I was 2 years old and avidly study the music of its great composer Harold Arlen. The more I thought about the idea, the more excited I got. I applied to the Fringe Fest and was committed to stage the show, whether or not we were accepted. When I got the terrific news that we would be part of the festival, the script and music were already underway and production began in earnest.
Q. Are there specific games to which you are trying to pay homage?
A. The original 1985 Super Mario Bros is the primary video-game that inspired our show. In many ways it’s the Rosetta Stone of video game adventure, so much of what we know and love about video games can really be traced back to that original side-scroller. I’ve always been amazed at how immersed and engaged I was with that world, when the narrative gestures in the game are really so minimal and simple. It somehow connects with something archetypal and that really appealed to me in drawing our characters in Fireflower, who start off as identifiable archetypes and hopefully reveal their complexity over the course of the story.
The other major inspiration would definitely be the 1939 film adaptation of the Wizard of Oz, which made an incredible impression on me as a young age and ultimately tells a very special story about making friends with those who are different than you. Both Mario and Oz have an irrepressible optimism, which to me is not only infectious but really important. Optimism can be a difficult tone to balance honestly, and with any hope we’ve approached that with Fireflower.
Q. What challenges did you come across as you started designing costumes and figuring out makeup?
A. On one hand, we’re operating in a world with pre-defined characters, many of whom are practically pop-culture famous, so much of the look of the characters was already designed. On the other hand, I wanted to tell a very universal story, one that didn’t subsist on in-jokes and game-specific references. I felt that if our looks were too specific to Mario we’d be inviting not only those in-jokes, but a stricter adherence to the narrative of those games. We wrestled with how to balance honoring the original game against telling a new & universal story and hopefully we’ve straddled that line with both the script and costumes. When in doubt, we went simpler with the designs. Honestly, the DIY and cosplay cultures were extremely helpful to our production. My friend and costume consultant Min culled through the litany of homemade costumes online and narrowed down to some of the most effective designs, which we then adapted, usually moving towards a more simple and archetypal look.
For our mushroom-people villagers, my mother and I stumbled on a design using plush soccer balls from IKEA, which we hollowed out and trimmed into headwear – the soccer hexagons became our mushroom spots and the adapted balls just happened to fit our actors’ heads. We custom-built turtle shells from scratch, which the shell-backed characters in the show wear like backpacks. The makeup & costuming for our villain was a real challenge but the actor who plays him, Will Brueggemann designed some wonderful creature makeup – including horns on his scull – that help to suggest his other worldliness without limiting his mobility or taking away too much from his humanity. One of the most entertaining parts of our costuming has to do with a couple of crucial costume changes, both of which need to happen in a matter of seconds. You’d miss it sitting in the audience unfortunately, but we’ve had to have teams of our cast and crew practice throwing clothes on and off a couple of our actors at lightning speed. When we finally started hitting our target time for the changes we started screaming we were so thrilled. We’ll try to contain our excitement during our actual run.
Q. What was the process to come up with your original 8-bit score?
A. As much as I loved writing the script, I’m a composer first and foremost, and when the idea for the show fell out of the sky it was clear the underscore and accompaniment needed to be sequenced authentically in 8-bit. Imagining actors singing in a golden-era Broadway style over 8-bit bloops and bleeps just had me jumping up and down – I couldn’t wait to start. I’m a near-lifelong fan of video game music and had composed using that technology before, which is approximately like composing via code in a DOS-like spreadsheet – the learning curve is pretty steep and it can be tedious to implement. My younger brothers are also huge videogame music advocates and host a popular podcast on the subject, The Super Marcato Bros, and compose game music under the same name.
I started sequencing the first couple of pieces myself, but my brother Will had even more experience than I did using the tracking software and I asked him to ultimately sequence most of the show, and he painstakingly translated my hand-written arrangements to wonderful 8-bit versions. It was a real challenge composing and arranging the music to the medium, as you’re limited to only 3 (and in some cases 4) notes at any one time. Since I wanted to compose an uncompromised 30s/40s-style score with extended chords and lush harmony I had to really meticulously arrange the harmony & voice leading so that it never sounded restricted.
Once we started rehearsing, Will and I had to work closely on revising tempos and volumes to best accommodate the performers, as there would be no way to make adjustments on the fly when performing, since we didn’t have a flexible band or orchestra but pre-mixed tracks. As far as we are aware, we are the first theatrical production to use an authentic 8-bit score for an entire musical and I am so proud of the implementation Will has done – it is truly beautiful and has been an immense labor of love.
Q. What’s one other Fringe show you recommend?
A. I’m really looking forward to seeing ‘Hi! Hello! Namaste?‘, which features my friend Himanshu Agrawal and looks to be spectacular!
Q. What’s next for you after Fringe?
A. In between Fireflower performances, I’ll be supporting the outstanding J.E. Sunde, playing keyboards in shows in Minneapolis and Madison as he opens for the wonderful band PHOX. After our run I’ll be back in the studio I co-operate in Wisconsin (Honeytone) where we’re eager to produce & mix something new for our label Honeytone Records.
Review: Fireflower is so much fun! The musical evokes just the right amount of nostalgia for the days of the original Nintendo and playing Super Mario Bros in my parents’ basement with my big sis. The nod to the original characters is obvious, and I would absolutely love to see this musical done as a fully funded stage show. The Mooshies are adorable and have great chemistry, and Karl Bruegemann’s Maslow is such an endearing grump. From the 8-bit score (I would love for them to add more songs!) to the creative prop use to show fire power, Fireflower is well thought out and Marty Bruegemann’s sense of “irrepressible optimism” in the role of James/Single Player shines through. I encourage you to make a point to see this at Fringe Fest.