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Born in Rexburg’s winter, ‘Deep Love’ transcends both death and expectations

October 17, 2017

The English language is good at a lot of things. Describing “love” as a concept isn’t one of them.

Provo resident Ryan Hayes, co-creator of the rock opera “Deep Love,” referenced the ancient Greeks. They had four main words for love: “agápe,” which was the highest, undying, transcendent kind of love; eros, which connotes sexual passion and an appreciation of beauty itself; philia, or brotherly love; and “storge,” the longsuffering acceptance one might feel for family members or country.

But this rock opera isn’t performed in Greek. It’s in English.

“Love isn’t always a clear-cut thing, in my opinion. And a lot of people do a lot of messed-up stuff out of ‘love,’ ” Hayes said. “It’s tricky. I think that I was confused by love for a long time. I think I’m still confused by love.”

FROM REXBURG TO BROADWAY

“Deep Love” comes to Velour Live Music Gallery in downtown Provo on Thursday, and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday. After its initial performance in a Rexburg, Idaho, living room seven years ago, “Deep Love” became a Halloween mainstay in Utah’s theater scene. It has since been showcased at the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival, which included a piece in the New York Times.

The stage production features four characters — two male, two female — who become entangled in each other’s love lives. This isn’t your average love triangle, though: Some of the characters are dead. Tied to (and trapped by) their own notions of love, the characters discover whether their affection can continue beyond the grave.

“We’re not trying to be preachy,” Hayes said. “We’re just coming up with scenarios. What if there were two lovers separated by death? And what if there was a new lover in the picture?”

These themes, Hayes said, resonated with local audiences in a way he never expected. He and Garrett Sherwood, a college friend and roommate, mostly wrote “Deep Love” as a creative exercise. Sherwood remembers mapping out the show’s plot with a marker, scrawling it on the mirror in their bedroom.

“We were both single, and it was winter in Rexburg, so our options on what to do with our time were pretty limited,” he said. “We sort of fell backwards into something profound. I don’t think we realized how the songs and the characters and the story would connect to people the way it did.”

Its resonance, though, actually makes sense in the context of its audience. Mormonism dominates the demographics of Rexburg and Utah. Concepts like eternal life and eternal love are central to Latter-day Saint theology. The macabre nature of “Deep Love” might not resemble Mormonism, but the ideas behind it are quite familiar.

The first two “Deep Love” performances — one in a living room, the other at the burger joint Sammy’s — were meager, but immediately triggered a unique zeal among the audience. They wanted to do a bigger production, but the only larger venue in Rexburg was the Rexburg Tabernacle, which seats more than a thousand. That’s a big jump. On a weeknight during BYU-Idaho’s finals week, “Deep Love” sold out the entire tabernacle. This audience excitement became par for the course as “Deep Love” expanded into Utah’s theater scene.

“And if we did it every night of the week, they’d probably come every night of the week,” Sherwood said. “And they’d come dressed up as their favorite character.”

“I think that everybody wants to be a part of something greater than themselves,” Hayes added, “and the ‘Deep Love’ community is worth taking a look at, as a sociological experiment if nothing more, to see how a small group of people with common interests can come together and create something that is greater than any of them ever could have imagined.”

SQUARE PEGS, ROUND HOLES

Jon Peter Lewis plays the character of Old Bones, a deceased man trying to maintain his claim on a living lover. Lewis has played Old Bones and served as the rock opera’s director since the beginning. He admitted he was skeptical when Hayes and Sherwood first conceived it — a rock opera is no small undertaking — but was immediately sold when he heard the songs.

“And I had a lot of visions of what it could become, right there in the moment,” Lewis said.

The group’s experience at the New York Musical Theatre festival, according to those interviewed, was a mixed bag of sorts. Lewis said it put them on the radar, and certainly upped the musical’s production value. But “Deep Love” isn’t formatted like your average Broadway musical. For one, the entire show is sung, like an opera. The songs come first, with the narrative supporting the songs. On Broadway it’s typically the opposite.

While “Deep Love” garnered its share of attention in New York, it also left many of Broadway’s more traditional gatekeepers scratching their heads.

“What we’re trying to do is tell a story in very broad strokes, and let people have a more musical experience than a theatrical experience,” Lewis explained. “In theater today, there’s a heavy reliance upon non-profit organizations to finance new musicals. And I think that removes a person from being in tune with what audiences want.”

Hayes put it this way: “Out here in the West, people eat it up. Out East, it’s hard to get these old dudes with money to take much interest, because it’s just a money game.”

ALWAYS IN FLUX

Though it’s been going for seven years, “Deep Love” is still rather malleable. Each year brings slight changes to the dialogue, the characters and the music. Some of those changes have been rather substantial. When “Deep Love” first started, Hayes said the two female leads were secondary characters. Their prominence has increased steadily, and Hayes thinks “Deep Love” is now more about the women than the men.

That’s certainly evident in the character Florence. Originally conceived as a rather vindictive character, Florence has become far more nuanced, and more central to the show, over the years.

“I think it has kept the passion alive for me,” said Amy Whitcomb, who plays Florence. “I don’t think I’ve ever really been able to totally relax into the role.”

Whitcomb described Florence as The Hulk of “Deep Love,” prone to severe, transformative mood swings. But Florence’s anger is complex. That speaks to how “Deep Love” has refined the broad strokes in which it was originally written. And, from the looks of it, things will continue to change: Hayes and Sherwood are stepping back from the production after this year, meaning the play’s future will largely be in others’ hands. That doesn’t mean “Deep Love” is stopping, though. The “Deep Love” crew wants to keep expanding, while retaining what has always been at the heart of the show.

“Fundamentally, our show is a rock ’n’ roll concert,” Hayes said. “And yeah, we can adapt it, but the way it came together was just raw, rock ’n’ roll, friends getting together, no money involved. Grassroots stuff, you know? And you don’t need money to pull off something amazing.”