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Dexter theater premieres first musical version of "Into the Wild"

Apr 13, 2017

25 years ago this month, a recent college graduate named Christopher McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska. He then hiked into the wilderness, using an old mountain road called the Stampede Trail.

Conor Ryan plays Christopher McCandless in the new musical "Into The Wild"
Credit Michele Anliker Photography

A few months later, on Sept. 6, a hunter found him dead inside an old bus.

Writer Jon Krakauer told this puzzling story in his book Into the Wild which was later adapted into a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch.

Now, the story of the young man who called himself "Alexander Supertramp" has been turned into a stage musical.

Into The Wild opens tomorrow night (Friday, April 14) at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter.

Conor Ryan, a University of Michigan graduate who plays McCandless in the play, joined Mia Walker, the show's director, on Stateside to talk about how this play came to the stage, in musical form. 
 

"Ultimately I think our goal is to pay tribute to Chris ... [To] keep his story alive. His courageous and unbelievably admirable quest for truth and purpose in life and understanding that I think almost anybody can relate to."

The story began with playwright Janet Allard, who spent some time in Alaska and became interested in McCandless' story. She reached out to Niko Tsakalakos and they wrote a few songs, inspired by McCandless' story.  They took those songs and contacted McCandless' family. On the strength of those songs, the family gave their blessing to adapt Into The Wild into a musical.

While the play is closely adapted from the book, the play has its own vision of McCandless' adventures.

"We're trying to stay as true as we can to Chris' story but after a certain point we've got to trust that our version of the story is eventually a different beast altogether," Ryan said. "Because there's no way that any of us can know what Chris was thinking, what Chris may have been doing alone while he was living in the bus on the Stampede Trail in Alaska."  

The source material included the book, McCandless' journal and photographs and his family.

"Ultimately I think our goal is to pay tribute to Chris," Ryan added. "[To] keep his story alive. His courageous and unbelievably admirable quest for truth and purpose in life and understanding that I think almost anybody can relate to."

The story of Christopher McCandless is not without controversy. There are some who have claimed that he was unprepared and unskilled when he set out on his quest, and some have suggested that he may have been mentally ill and may have committed suicide.

Walker rejects those claims.

"Part of the mission of this production is to show that Chris McCandless was not on a death wish," Walker said. "He was actually more full of life than so many people who live in this world who live their days numb, going through the motions. He was committed to living fully, being in the moment, and to going into the unknown places where many people are scared to go."

According to Walker, further investigation into McCandless' death reveals that he did not starve to death or did not commit suicide. McCandless died from eating poisonous seeds that had not been written about in the plant book that he had with him.

Listen to the full interview above to hear more about McCandless' adventure, how Walker compares him to ice climbers and how this play came to be featured on the stage in the small town of Dexter. 

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