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'Vinegar Tom' at IU Theatre brings pop, electronica to 17th-century England



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“Vinegar Tom” opens March 29 at the Wells-Metz Theatre. The play is set in the west country of 17th-century England. Kevin Kratz Buy Photos

IU Theatre’s “Vinegar Tom” is set in the west country of 17th-century England. The music is not.

Though the show has its own score, director Rachel Pierce decided early on she didn’t want to use it. About a decade ago, she had successfully revamped the music for modern audiences as an actor, and wanted to do it again for this production.

Musical inspiration for the new score includes Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.

“It really worked to make it contemporary, to find that parallel and thread from the world of the play to now,” Pierce said. “The play seems in line with the #MeToo movement and everything that’s happening now. It’s very much a ‘now’ play.”

“Vinegar Tom” follows two women named as witches by their neighbors and the mass hysteria that follows. Written by renowned playwright Caryl Churchill, “Vinegar Tom” premiered October 12, 1976 in Hull, England. The work explores how the fear of female sexuality is a source of many social problems, both past and present.

In fall 2018, she approached a graduate student studying music composition, Miggy Torres, about writing original music for the 43-year-old work. They did research, threw ideas around and exchanged comments and suggestions as Torres began writing.

“We decided we would do electronic music,” Torres said. “The music really needs to be native to today. I also didn’t want it to have musical theater vibes.”

From November to February, Torres wrote six of the play’s seven songs to accompany Churchill’s original lyrics.

“I tried to draw from different sources, but sources that really are about the way we interact with music today,” he said.

One day at rehearsal, Torres saw the actors in “Vinegar Tom” wearing outfits he said looked like they were from a '90s television show, which reminded him of Britney Spears. From there, he decided the song “Evil Women” would quote the opening riff of Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Another song in the show, “If You Float,” combines a dreamy synth with a rave beat, tempo pushing forward to a high-octane, fist-pumping dance refrain.

“The bassline in ‘If You Float’ is similar to what you hear in Ariana Grande’s ‘Into You,’” Torres said. “This one’s such a bop.”

He said many of these musical allusions are jumping off points he used in writing the score.

“I wanted them to be top-40 hits,” he said. “It needs to be something that someone who doesn’t go to music school would hear on the radio.”

Though the music is new, the play — and its themes — are not. Churchill developed “Vinegar Tom” among colleagues she met at an abortion rights protest in the 1970s. She discovered the fight for reproductive rights paralleled the witch hysteria of the 17th century, according to an IU Theatre press release.

Though the play has strong cultural and social messages, Pierce said she didn’t want the play to shove them in the audiences’ faces. One way the singers pull back the intensity of the sometimes sarcastic lyrics is through the music Torres wrote.

“It makes us think and sit on it,” Pierce said. “It lets the themes wash over us. It transports you to a different place.”

Torres said one of his goals was to make sure the audience didn’t feel safe in the song. Occasionally, the music “glitches” out: Singers repeat lines like a scratched record or the song topples over with sound, crescendos into a noise wall and explodes.

He said he wrote these “glitches” to break the temporal barrier between the audience and the action on stage and to remind people these issues still exist today.

“The songs take all of that and tells the audience, ‘Hey, this is happening now,'” Torres said. “It’s like you’re seeing yourself outside of everything.”

“Vinegar Tom” opens March 29 at the Wells-Metz Theatre. Tickets start at $10 for students.

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