The opening of “Saga: A New Nordic Musical” on Broadway in Jackson, Wyoming, this week brings something quite unlike anything theatregoers there have ever seen.
Billed as “the offseason Viking musical you didn’t think you needed,” this sweaty Scandinavian epic reimagines Iceland’s hardscrabble beginnings from 874 A.D.
Beautiful set pieces, handmade costumes, songs sung in Old Norse and Icelandic will help bring the enigmatical island to life as it was in the seafaring days when Viking mythology was in its infancy.
Blood feuds, sword fights, nudity? Check.
Hardships, violence, tragedy? Check.
Let’s put it this way: This is decidedly not a staging of “Guys & Dolls.”
The pioneering musical production breaks new ground — at least for Jackson and Wyoming — bringing all things Nordic to the landlocked Cowboy State. That includes music, food, language and a full immersion in Iceland’s rich history.
It’s a bold undertaking, especially considering the timing. The nonprofit behind the production, Tumbleweed Creative Arts, is barely six months from securing its nonprofit status. A peek behind that curtain finds a familiar face to Jacksonites — Andrew Munz.
The 36-year-old author-playwright-actor is a rising star on the nightlife scene in Jackson with standup comedy performances morphing into a wildly successful ski town parody play series called “I Can Ski Forever.”
When the pandemic threatened to darken playhouses for live entertainment, Munz took to social media, creating his drag persona Your Girl Catherine and had homebound audiences in stitches with “Real Housewives of Jackson Hole,” a burningly spot-on satire of pinot-toting West Bank (Wilson, Teton Village) trophy wives and their First World problems.
Munz also recently released a coffee table book, “Jackson Hole: A Love Letter,” on Wilson Book Gallery Press. That’s in addition to his 2020 book “I Can Ski Forever,” award-winning short film "The Ballad of Jackson Hole" in 2022, and numerous accolades and awards locally and statewide.
Munz has become the Taylor Sheridan of Jackson. His name attached to anything virtually guarantees its success. He sold out various shows at Center for the Arts, Mangy Moose and Pink Garter Theater — more than 20,000 tickets in all. And counting. No performer in the area has that kind box office clout.
The mission statement for Tumbleweed Creative Arts is to promote the arts; “To give local artists the opportunity to share their talents regardless of the genre,” Munz said.
More importantly perhaps, TCA is also playing a crucial fundraising role as Munz strives to provide space to stage a play or foster creativity. He’s reviving a dormant playhouse, a once-elegant theater that time has passed by as real estate offices and T-shirt shops crowd it out in downtown Jackson.
“I want this space to be as much a home for local artists as it is a home for people who want to support those artists,” Munz said. “We have a lease for a year. I feel really confident in the longevity of our ultimate residency here in the long term. We need this space in Jackson.”
He said an already robust Jackson arts scene still has plenty of potential.
“We have organizations in town that present really incredible works — Center for the Arts, Walk Festival Hall,” he said. “Grandiose and beautiful venues that are producing a lot of great work. But in this space, which has traditionally been the home for community theatre in Jackson over the years, I’m trying to reclaim a bit of that local vibe.”
Hägar The Horrible
For Munz, the production of “Saga” is a homecoming of sorts to the theater where he first trod the boards as a burgeoning 10-year-old thespian. And to Jackson, where the darling of the valley enjoys a devoted fan base for pretty much anything theatrical he does.
Growing up gay in Wyoming was not easy for Munz. The son of Austrian immigrants left Jackson after high school to study comedy in Chicago with its famed The Second City. After that, he began an on-and-off relationship with his hometown pocked with frequent Scandinavian sojourns.
Munz’s “finfaring” travel has taken him abroad numerous times — 11 trips to Iceland in the past 11 years — often staying away for months at a time. He was recently accepted into a prestigious film school in Iceland, but for once Munz put his passport away and said no. He was staying home to be godfather to the rebirth of a dusty old theater.
But for all the familiar there also is the unknown. The Pink Garter Theatre was last used as a live music concert venue for the 12 years before it shut down in 2020. Will ticket buyers flock to the space once it returns to its roots as a community theater?
Better still, will there be an audience for something as weighty, foreign and niche as a Viking musical?
Saga’s director, Dillon Hanna, calls the work “complex.”
“If you were debuting a theater space you might try opening with something a little easier than this production,” Hanna said. “There is some kind of magic trick in every scene of this play.
“Strictly from a technical standpoint — the amount of lighting cues, set cues — is a lot, plus music. Also, from a story standpoint, there are inside Icelandic jokes, references to Nordic folklore and nearly all the material deriving from documented historical records regarding the settlement of Iceland that we are trying to make as accurate as possible.”
Munz is a swing-for-the-fence kind of guy. He didn’t want to reinvent the wheel with a Western version of “Grease” or regurgitate the “Ski Forever” brand. The first out-of-the-box programming at Pink Garter would be something epic, something that would scream diversity.
“It’s ambitious, but that’s me,” Munz said. “Look, just because something is unfamiliar doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Just because it’s not ‘Ski Forever 6’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust me with theatre and a story I would like to tell.”
Munz’s love for Iceland — a land he says “changed my chemistry” at first visit — is something he had to share with Wyoming. And it was important to do it right and steer clear of stereotypes.
“I really want to offer audiences the chance to come learn about this culture and not just get the standardized version of Vikings from a TV show or see a cartoon with horns on a helmet,” Munz said. “This is a chance for people in Jackson to get out of their comfort zone where they can't just go to NY or LA or Denver to experience this. We are actually building something completely and distinctively original here.”
Sacking And Pillaging
“Saga” will be more than just the dozen shows this fall. TCA has also planned satellite events to fully immerse Jackson into a Scandinavian folk scene.
What mead does one pair with hákarl (fermented shark)? Is Norse music more Björk or Game of Thrones soundtrack? How to accessorize beyond the LBD, a Fendi bag and requisite Gjermundbu and horns?
Munz admits he needed “a little more clout” to feel comfortable about presenting Iceland and its history. While in Iceland, Munz has worked for a chef and a baker, served as a whale watching guide and otherwise transformed himself into a passable local at least conversational in the language.
But “Saga” had to be as true and entertaining as he could make it.
University of Colorado Nordic studies professor Dr. Mathias Nordvig was brought in to consult. In addition to being the production’s dramaturge — ensuring actual ancient texts were properly interpreted by playwright Munz — the prof will host several lecture series dates in support of the play.
Ethnomusicologist Jameson Foster serves as “Saga’s" composer. The musical features seven numbers with elaborate choreography (complete with a rotating stage) and actors singing in a language they don’t know how to speak. Some 80% of the music in “Saga” is produced live onstage.
A value-add opening night gala also will include a pre-show feast. Heavy Icelandic appetizers will include kjösúpa (lamb soup), plökkfiskur (cod and potato stew), hrásalat (cabbage & hearts of palm salad), fiskibollur (cod croquettes) and harðfiskur (fish jerky).
Foreign Or Familiar?
Munz was surprised by how familiar Iceland felt to him at first introduction. Thereby, “Saga” should resonate with many Wyomingites.
“Iceland was not so much foreign as familiar to me,” he said. “It was very much like Wyoming in that it has a volcanic landscape, treeless buttes. A lot like driving through central Wyoming in the spring when everything is green.
“It has geothermic activity just like Yellowstone. It’s sparsely populated. Many things that felt like my speed.”
Conversely, the script Munz has written for “Saga” is filled with aspects of a pioneering spirit, a wanderlust fulfilled,and “follow your arrow” destiny seeking.
“First and foremost, ‘Saga’ is a celebration of storytelling, of relatable themes that are universal to mankind from family strife, grief, betrayal and revenge, to lighter comedic moments like how you deal with your coworker, to concepts of ritual and spirituality and mythology,” Munz said.
Director Hanna, who does not share Munz’s Icelandic leanings, provides the production’s fresh third eye, making sure inside jokes go over and the play isn’t bogged down in the history lesson.
“Overall, this is a story about pioneers, but the themes addressed are universal the world over,” Hanna said. “Very relatable and relevant today to a Jackson audience.”
Hanna, 20, had his hands full with casting the novel epic.
“This show has never been done before. There’s no precedent,” Hanna said. “Any character can be anything. Every cast member up here is originating a character, which is kind of cool. Not a lot of actors get to originate roles.”
With no blueprint to follow, most of the 18 actors cast in “Saga” had no idea what the show’s producers were looking for. Hanna had actors read several sides to “get an idea of who they are and where they flesh out the cast as a whole.”
“The process was a really unique experience in coordinating ability and personality,” the director added. “We just tried to figure out how to make best use of the people that showed up saying, ‘I don't know what this is, but I want to be a part of it.’
“Honoring that has been really fun. It’s new territory and we are figuring the best way through it with no reference point or map.”
Casting Munz as the show’s star was the only nonnegotiable. He plays the central character Ingólfur Arnarson, the first permanent settler of Iceland.
“We knew I would be playing Ingólfur, because Jackson has not seen me do a dramatic role before. Not on this scale,” Munz said.
Despite being voted Jackson’s “Best Actor” several years running, the biting satirist has usually played personalities close to home.
“With the whole best actor thing, it’s appreciated. But I don't think people have really seen me act much,” he said. “There’s a part of me that wants to immerse myself in a role that feels a bit more meaty,” he said.
Elise Mumford plays Saga, the cryptic seeress who guides Ingólfur (Munz) on his journey. Ingólfur’s brother Hjörleifur is played by Mason Marshall. Rose Linville is cast as Hjörleifur’s wife Helga.
Raise The Curtain
Show opened Friday and runs through Nov. 11 with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only with matinee showings on Saturdays.
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.
“I didn’t want people to return to their electronic rectangles and go back to the real world in some way. I want you are immersed in it,” Munz said.
Recommended for audiences ages 13 and older due to strong violence and brief nudity. Getting tickets in advance is highly suggested.