A new musical, Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight makes its world premiere at the Waterfire Arts Center in Providence on Thursday, May 25. Presented by the Wilbury Theatre Group, the play tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, considered one of the greatest artists of the Baroque period. Getileschi is known for her work featuring strong, heroic women, much of it inspired by the trauma she experienced after being raped at age 17 by her teacher and family friend.
In an interview earlier this week, award-winning playwright Darcie Dennigan explained how the concept for the play came together.
“Several years ago, I saw the painting ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ by Artemisia Gentileschi. At that particular time in my life, given the political climate, I was really struck by it, and by the way Artemisia depicted Judith,” explained Dennigan. “It was so different from others who had painted that event. She and her maidservant were united together, how strong they were. Because of everything that was going on, I was feeling very angry and impatient, thinking of ways justice could bend in one’s art through a fantasy of revenge.”
So she began to work on a play but soon realized the subject matter would be better served as a musical. “Other people had done this story of Artemisia and her rape trial,” continued Dennigan. “Her thoughts and feelings had to be encoded in her paintings; I thought it felt right to tell the story in a way that was also in a genre that was heavily encoded, like a 60s doo-wop girl group. They say something while they are looking and sounding very sweet, something angry while also looking nonaggressive. (I thought) it would be interesting to get the message across in a different way.”
“It’s almost all music except for a few short monologues, it’s a musical,” says Dennigan. “It moved from the 60’s girl group doo-wop to punk, some of her (Gentileschi’s) later works are more overt, we were looking for the kind of music that would match that. Groups like Bikini Kill, an overtly feminist group, that music felt right. It is so cool to hear the evolution of the story told through the music that Niki wrote,” she said.
“It’s all original music,” says Wilbury’s Niki Healy. “Darcie had written the lyrics, they were looking for a composer and I told Josh Short, the Artistic Director who is also directing, ‘put me in coach, let me look at the first song and take a crack.’ So I sent it to Darcie and she said, yes, that’s what I would like. I had six weeks to write all of the music – it’s 13 songs, Darcy and I were very aligned on the musical arc. It starts in that classic 60s girl group, The Angels, Martha and the Vandellas, Lesley Gore sort of feeling. It devolves/evolves to The Donnas, Polly Styrene, that unadulterated ‘we don’t give a blank,’ kind of punk rock.”
The show features an all-female cast, along with a men’s chorus. “There’s a five-piece band; some of the chorus parts are played by male members of the band. We also offered a volunteer opportunity, so if you want to be a part of the male chorus for a couple of performances, you can do that.”
Gentileschi’s life story certainly reverberates in our times. Dennigan penned the story in the framework of the #metoo movement.
“I was thinking about it in the context of having a president who was probably a rapist and now is a confirmed rapist, and also a Supreme Court Justice who had a credible accusation against him. Women were feeling so frustrated and impatient for some justice. The violence in the show is the impatient fantasy, but I think the real message in the show is the absolute, utterly inspiring strength of these women. All five of the characters are based on real women, contemporaries of Getileschi who were also feminists. One was a painter who was murdered by her husband, one was a writer whose father left her in a convent, and the other one is a version of her daughter who was also a painter.
“These characters are really inspiring for me because their hands were so much more tied than in our time now. The message is one that strength and justice are coming, we hope,” said Dennigan.”
Although the topic is intense, expect to have a good time. “It’s a musical, it’s uppity,” says Healy. “The subject matter might come across as heavy, but overall, it’s kind of a blast to be there. It’s entertaining, it’s not a downer. You’ll probably leave singing, you might just be a little appalled by the lyrics inside your head,” added Dennigan.
The production is directed by Josh Short, with music direction by Milly Massey and choreography by Ali Kenner Brodsky and runs in performances May 25 through June 11. Tickets for all performances are $5-$55 through the Wilbury Theatre Group’s innovative “All-Access” ticketing model.
Content Warning: This production contains references to rape, sexual assault, and torture.
For more information and tickets to the production, click here.