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May 13, 2010

A Nietzsche musical? UWB graduate student teams with composer for unusual stage piece

At first glance, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may not seem like a good subject for a musical. After all, the man who famously said, “God is dead” is sometimes thought of as a nihilist — not exactly a promising outlook for an evening’s entertainment.

“Actually, Nietzsche was anything but nihilistic,” said Jeremy Richards. “He wrestled with nihilism, but he ultimately taught that we should say ‘yes’ to life.” And Richards looked beyond all that’s been said about Nietzsche’s philosophy to Nietzsche’s life, which he calls dramatic and tragic, adding, “Nietzsche was obsessed with music and poetry. I thought he’d make an ideal candidate for a musical.”

So Richards wrote the book and lyrics and convinced composer Rob Scherzer to write the music. The show, called Nietzsche! The Musical, debuts this weekend at Market Theatre, with performances at 8:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through June 12.

The show is Richards’ thesis project for his master’s in cultural studies from the UW Bothell. Meanwhile, he works full-time as a producer at KUOW radio. He’s also a member of the ensemble at Market Theatre, a two-time member of Seattle’s National Poetry Slam team and a three-time winner of the Bumbershoot Poetry Slam.

He got interested in Nietzsche as an undergraduate at Gonzaga University, where he studied philosophy and theology. “At the time, I was studying Thomas Aquinas and Alfred North Whitehead, but I was interested in aesthetics,” Richards said. “My friend told me if I was interested in aesthetics, I should read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. He told me he was a better guitar player because of it. I finally did that a few years later and I was captivated by Nietzsche’s style and verve. Then I read about his life and his ideas and thought it would make a dramatic subject.”

Richards created a 16-page proposal for his UWB adviser, then took it to Scherzer to ask if he would write music for it.

“I’ve completely rewritten everything since then, but he must have seen some glimmer of promise in it because he said yes,” Richards said.

Nietzsche, Richards said, has been wrongly maligned as the philosopher of the Nazis. Nietzsche’s sister, with whom he lived for the last 11 years before his death, was married to an anti-Semite, and she took control of his Nietzsche’s writings after he died. The Nazis, moreover, used Nietzsche’s writings selectively to support their point of view.

“In his life, Nietzsche explicitly rejected anti-Semitism and German nationalism,” Richards said.

What Nietzsche actually did stand for is a matter of some dispute, however, which is why Richards said his show is merely “in the spirit” of Nietzsche. “It isn’t anything weighty, despite all these serious issues Nietzsche deals with. He said every truth should be accompanied by laughter. So it’s a satirical treatment, but it acknowledges the seriousness and gravity. It’s a good balance.”


The play begins in a contemporary setting where a disgraced professor of philosophy is teaching a Sunday School class. He’s thrown out the Bible and uses Nietzsche instead, so the audience initially gets Nietzsche’s philosophy on a third-grade level before the ideas get more complex. The teacher tells Nietzsche’s story, after which there are two story lines — one in the present, one in the past in Nietzsche’s time. They come together at the end.

The theater is clearly taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the production. The description on their website says “Unexpected Productions presents the world premiere of Nietzsche! The Musical. Over a century after Friedrich Nietzsche’s death, his influence still pervades intellectual and popular culture, from Freud and Foucault to Kanye West and Little Miss Sunshine. But many questions still remain: Was Nietzsche’s mustache made from shredded Bibles? Did he secretly invent kickball? And what about the alleged catfish-baiting rings he ran in his basement?”

Richards said he had a staged reading of the work in April, and that the audience was “entertained, intrigued, curious and confused.” Their confusion led him to rewrite the first act, and that, he said, has made a real difference.

The play constitutes Richards’ master’s thesis, but he plans to use reactions to the performances to help him write a review and reflection paper.

“There has been endless debate about Nietzsche’s philosophy and no definitive answer,” he said. “But I hope the show opens up a popular reception for Nietzsche’s ideas. He’s not just a bumper sticker philosopher who said God is dead.”

And he is very pleased with how the production — which is directed by Kate Jaeger — came out, calling it a “miracle. I couldn’t have imagined it coming to life in such a vibrant way. I feel humble to be part of it.”

Tickets for the show are available here.