Hundred Days, which receives its regional premiere at the Aurora Fox on Friday, September 17, and runs until October 10, is a vivid musical memoir by real-life couple Shaun and Abigail Bengson with Sarah Gancher about how the two met and fell in love at first sight. But though this isn’t one of those mournful terminal—illness narratives, the shadows gather when Sean learns that his time on earth, and with Abigail, may be limited to the hundred days of the title. The story of love and death’s inevitability is told with a folk-punk score that mixes touching ballads and raucous, pounding sing-outs.
If you want a musical that celebrates the glory of being alive while also sending the roof into the stratosphere, you can’t do better than enlist the talents of David Nehls. His musical direction has helped create more bright, successful area musicals than can be counted. Director Nick Sugar, among other successes, has both directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and also starred in the lead role himself, portraying Hedwig with an unforgettable mixture of rage, pain and rare spurts of love and joy. Nehls and Sugar have worked together innumerable times, and when I get them on the phone, the conversation is swift and genial, as they talk in unison, add to each other’s points, share the occasional memory and periodically apologize for interrupting each other.
Hundred Days is in line with the tastes of artistic director Helen Murray, Nehls explains. Her choices tend to be intriguing and timely, and “There’s a push toward intimate, lesser-known works that have more heart than big flashy musicals.”
As for being back at work, Sugar says, “There’s nothing else like it. It’s great to do theater again after this crazy year. And this is such a unique piece. The question it poses is: What would you do if you only had a hundred days left to live? That gets the conversation started. After a year of isolation and social distancing, you really have time to contemplate, What do I want to do with my life?”
Nehls says he loves working at the Fox with Murray. But though he has been busy through the pandemic and “saying yes to everything,” he hesitated when she asked him about Hundred Days. After listening to the material, however, he was convinced. “It is so strong,” he says. “There’s a hope and a vitality to it that I need now, and the community does too.
“It’s not the kind of music we usually hear in the theater,” he continues. “The Bengsons are songwriters, and haven’t been writing theater for years. They’re crafting their own story in their own voice, and some of the poetry and the lyrics are just gorgeous.”
The Aurora Fox tends to attract large and diverse audiences, and both artists hope Hundred Days will cast a wide net.
Asked about their many years of working together, both men laugh. “We’ve done Three Hedwigs,” says Nehls. “Hedwig. Pause. Something else. Revival of Hedwig. Hedwig again.”
“We do have an appreciation for certain kinds of music: Hedwig, that ’80s glam rock, that early punk," says Nehls. "There are elements of punk in Hundred Days."
Sugar starts humming a number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and threatens to transform into Frank-N-Furter, a role for which he won a Best of Denver some years back.
Nehls laughs: I don’t think I could do Oklahoma.”
“Oh,” says Sugar. “We would both do it.”
Nehls agrees, then gets more serious: “I love watching Nick communicate with actors. Because he is an actor and I was an actor, it makes it a very safe room, a very positive working experience. There are some issues these actors have to delve into in deeper ways, and I love how Nick is crafting that, and the discussions are very open. There’s the big umbrella topic of death.”
Sugar points out that while the Bengsons, who themselves performed Hundred Days in New York, are a married couple, Runner Francisco and Stephanie Holmbo, who play the roles at the Fox, are “an acting couple that have to be a married couple. They need a safe environment so we feel their love for each other and the actors feel comfortable enough to be passionate.”
Asked how he coped with the pandemic year, Sugar responds, “I didn’t panic. I’ve been fortunate to have a career in Denver, and this was a good time to restore, regenerate. I just tried to be calm with the state of the world with that crazy nut we had to deal with in the White House. Luckily, I got to do Almost Heaven with Town Hall.”
But there was a crisis to be dealt with. “I have two dogs," Sugar continues. "At the beginning of COVID, one of them was paralyzed. He had two ruptured discs, and I didn’t know if he was going to make it. I took him to the emergency vet, and they came outside and took him out of my arms. We couldn’t go in. Eight days later, they told me he was going to make it. I spent the first few months working with my dog, helping him walk. It was a blessing to watch him heal.”
Nehls says he was able to work through the year: “I’m so proud of the Colorado theater community. We found ways to keep going. We said, ‘We’re going to keep on until somebody says we can’t.'” Nehls had a new show he’d written workshopped at the Arvada Center, and did two concerts for Miners Alley Playhouse. He also wrote and tracked a Christmas show for a theater in Texas.
Sugar points out that a lot of funding came through, and donors and patrons all stepped up to support theater: “People who need the arts to survive were there for us. I saw a great sense of how strong our community really is.”
“And creative,” Nehls adds.
“I think the audience is going to be charmed by Hundred Days,” says Sugar. Both the script and the performers.”
“The poetry,” adds Nehls. “Poetry is something we don’t hear on stage all the time. It’ll be a wonderful surprise.”
Hundred Days runs from September 17 through October 10 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets, $20 to $40, are available at the Aurora Fox Arts Center website.