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"Four Measures" inquires about your soul—or at least its weight

The most outlandish part about this musical is that it's based on a true story.

Photo by Laura Adai/Unsplash.


Back in 1907, Duncan MacDougall published a scientific study claiming that the human soul weighs 21 grams after massing six bodies during the moment of death. More than a century later, Trademark Theater's Tyler Michaels King stumbled across it and immediately thought, "No one's made it into a novel or a stage play? That's crazy." After a couple more years, Trademark and the Playwrights' Center are now ready to host a free online reading of the musical they call "Four Measures," March 15.


The story, while outlandish because of its truth, had little more to its history than a few articles from Wikipedia and the History Channel, so playwright Kira Obolensky and composer and lyricist David Darrow had to flesh it all out. Line by line, they've tried to thread the needle between tragedy and comedy, bleakness and incredulity. The tale's overall existentialism only added to Trademark's self-proclaimed aesthetic of finding the epic in the intimate and the intimate in the epic.


"It's trying to find the balance of eccentricity, of the idiosyncratic, with this sort of morbidity and dark humor mixed with this really poetic sort of beautiful story about, 'What do people do when they know they're going to die and have no answers?'" Michaels King says.


At the beginning, Obolensky and Darrow (who also wrote the music for Trademark's "The Boy and Robin Hood" in 2017) met up in New York a few times and then pounded out a version for a fall 2019 workshop with the University of Minnesota B.F.A. acting students. While that time allowed them to start clicking as creators, the iteration they'll be putting on next week is drastically different. No original music stayed, and the script basically started over from page 1.


The reason? The musical's tuberculosis epidemic was too heavy with the current pandemic.


"Now it's lighter and funnier, and I think the absurdity of the idea lets us laugh at some of the more awful things we're going through now without making us feel like we're diminishing anything or feeling like we're making light of anyone's pain," Darrow says.


The original jumping off points for the music were Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and John Keats' poem "On Death" set to ethereal, atmospheric sounds. After the rewrite, though, it's gone a little more folksy, a little more traditional Broadway, and a little more ragtime and "Hadestown." The script's focus has changed, too, swinging between the doctor and a fictional nurse (still Obolensky's favorite character) before widening its scope to allow for more of the patients' stories to be heard.


For the reading, the team has assembled Twin Cities favorites like Robert Dorfman, Meghan Kriedler, and Sara Ochs, and they'll go back and forth between the script and Darrow's music performances. You can actually find a sneak peek of some of the songs on Trademark's website right now, including a patient's declaration; one of the nurse's many questions about the world; and some contemplation by Mr. C, who started as Charon of the River Styx and evolved into, as Obolensky puts it, more of a cool cat that can access both this world and the next.


"The experiment becomes a kind of structural backbone, but ultimately I think we're watching a nurse transform throughout the piece, and we're watching or getting glimpses of four different patients who come from different life experiences," Obolensky says. "It's not a biopic because [MacDougall is] not a household name, so we can get in there and start making the most of and stretching what all the ideas attached to weighing the soul might be."

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