Yale alums’ ‘Dust Can’t Kill Me’ to be performed at the New York Musical Festival

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Promotional photo featuring cast, including Paul Hinkes '15 (third from right). (Photo by David J Weiner)

“Dust Can’t Kill Me,” a folk musical set during the Great Depression that was written by two Yale alumni while they were students, is scheduled to be performed at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) in August.

Written by Abigail Carney ’15 and Elliah Heifetz ’16, the play takes place in Kansas during the late 1930s at the heart of the Dust Bowl disaster and follows a ragtag group of characters as they are visited by a prophet. His promise of paradise sets the group of wayward souls on a Dust Bowl journey into the desert, but when they arrive, their promised land is unlike anything they ever imagined — or anything they ever desired.

Carney and Heifetz began working on “Dust Can’t Kill Me” three years ago — it’s the first musical either has written — and staged it for the first time at the Yale Crescent Underground Theater in February 2014 to four sold-out audiences. Since then, they’ve cut songs and added new ones, switched up characters, and brought the musical to the New York International Fringe Festival later that year.

Yale’s support was “crucial” to the development and success of the show, said Carney. For instance, she said, while the cast was preparing for the Fringe Festival, the Yale Club allowed them to rehearse in their grand ballroom for an afternoon, performing an entire run in “one of the most beautiful rooms in New York.”

“Without Yale, Elliah and I would never have met and have had the chance to work with each other and all the other amazing people who have helped us to develop this musical,” she added. “Yale is such a special place for collaboration. We had the opportunity to work with brilliant, generous artists, and we also had the support from the school to make the first production of the show happen. The Sudler grant and the theater space allowed us to put up a fantastic first production, and it was that production that led to Fringe, and then NYMF.”

Carney’s family lived as rural migrants during this time period and she said it’s important to her to tell “honest” stories about rural America. Both Carney and Heifetz are also children of recent immigrants, another story they wanted to tell. Inspired by the stories of their families and realizing the parallels between today’s world and the one in the 1930s, they began writing “Dust Can’t Kill Me” together early in 2013.

“As young Americans facing an unpredictable and honestly frightening future, it’s easy to identify with the young Americans of the 1930s, who were surviving America’s last great economic depression and environmental disaster,” Heifetz explained. “With our love for folk music and the American West in mind, it was easy to draw from this rich and complex source material.” She said that working with Heitetz on the show and building a world was “incredible.”

Despite the hardships and uncertainty that faced the characters and the people of today, Carney wants audiences to leave the show feeling hope.

“2016 has been a hard year for the world, and for the United States. Many of us are feeling frustrated, tired, or angry. In ‘Dust Can’t Kill Me,’ the strength and love the characters give each other allows them to keep on living and fighting. We believe that it’s important to keep hoping and working for what is right — you’ll support others who are too weary to fight right now,” she explained.

Beyond the festival, Carney hopes that they can find a producer so they can continue to perform the show at regional theaters across the country in order to “share this story with as many people as possible.”

“Dust Can’t Kill Me” is directed by Srda Vasiljevic, a Bosnian-Iowan theater director who has been described as a “theater wunderkind already making his mark on Broadway.” Recent credits include “New York Spectacular” (Radio City), “Spring Awakening” (Brooks Atkinson), and “When I Started Dating Men” (Dixon Place).

The cast includes Yale alumnus Paul Hinkes ’15, Michael Castillejos, Richard Crandle, Elizabeth Davis, Adrian Blake Enscoe, and Kathryn Gallagher. Max Gordon ’16 is the show’s musical director; DJ Stanfill ’16 is assistant musical director; Yale senior Elizabeth Emanuel is assistant stage manager; and Ethan Karetsky ’14 is executive producer. Other crewmembers include Jennifer Jancuska, choreographer; Michael Cassara Casting, casting director; and Evan Bernardin, general manager.

Performances are at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W 36th St. The show will run everyday from Monday to Sunday, Aug. 1 to 7, except Friday, Aug. 5. For more information, visit the production’s website.

Also at the festival

Another Yale collaboration that will be featured at this year’s New York Musical Festival is “Midnight at The Never Get,” the story of two lovers who stage shows at The Never Get, an illegal Greenwich Village gay bar in the 1960s, when tensions are reaching a breaking point. The musical is described as a story of “two men who never existed and a time that very much did.” Mark Sonnenblick ’12 wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the work, which was co-conceived by Sam Bolen ’10. The show will be presented July 28 and 31 and Aug. 1. For more information, visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2016-events/midnight-never-get.

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