Eric Ulloa was driving home from Newtown, Connecticut, where he'd interviewed families for his play 26 Pebbles, when he turned on This American Life and found his next show. Host Ira Glass told the story of Andrew Forsthoefel, who walked across America, staying in strangers’ homes “just to listen to people and figure out how we’re all connected,” says Ulloa. Thus was born Passing Through, a new musical with a book by Ulloa and a score by Brett Ryback premiering July 24–August 25 at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, directed by Igor Goldin.
Ulloa felt drawn to this “beautiful story about America at its best,” he says, but knew he'd need a writing partner. Based on a sample "I want" number, the job was fellow actor-writer Ryback's.
Ryback’s music fuses the authentic sounds from disparate regions of the U.S. “Writing a piece about walking across the country, the style has to change all the time,” says Ulloa. “Our country’s very diverse in sound of music—even just going from Virginia to the Carolinas.”
Having never collaborated before, the symbiosis between Ulloa and Ryback surprises them.
“I’ve said before that a lot of my best ideas in this piece are actually Eric’s,” Ryback adds. “He has a skill for creating character in dialogue very quickly. Right off the page you get who these people are and because of the ensemble nature of the show—people step in and out—it’s really important.”
The ensemble cast of 11 creates the whole of the people encountered on Andrew’s cross-country trek. “There’s a total of six that play most of the people he meets along the way,” says Ryback. Ulloa adds, “I don’t think anyone in the cast leaves the stage.”
The idea of the traveler taken in by kind strangers has hit its stride recently with Broadway smashes like Come From Away and The Band’s Visit, and Hulu’s I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman, which saw the comedian travel to interview fellow Americans, specifically the ones who disagree with her, to find common ground.
“Taking a look at the people in this country to rediscover one another’s humanity, we’ve lost a sense of that,” says Ryback. “What I love about our piece that is similar to Sarah Silverman’s—but different from Come From Away and The Band’s Visit—is that it’s really about this country.”
Though the creators find lightness and humor in often awkward human situations and people helping people, the story is not all sunshine. “The forever scar of racism and slavery that exists, we know it’s there, but what does it teach us about our future selves?” says Ulloa. The musical is about “facing the crap in order to move forward,” says Ryback. “This is the medicine.”
“One of the things that still stands out to me: the people that take him in in one town would warn him about people in the next town over and then those would be the same people that were taking him in the next night and warning him about the next town over,” says Ulloa. “There’s something disconnected about what he was experiencing—how he became the thread that tied them all together.” And Ulloa and Ryback hope we all can follow suit.