Gay composer Scott Free can rattle off the names of several documentaries celebrating the Chicago origins of house music. This style of electronic dance music was pioneered by Black DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard in Chicago in the '80s.
But Free also felt that there was great dramatic potential in an original stage musical to explore the early days of Chicago's house music scene.
"As far as I know, there never has been a musical about house music," said Free, a co-composer and co-lyricist for House Musical: Coming of Age in the Age of House. The world-premiere musical by Campsongs Productions debuts at Chicago's Center on Halsted from April 20 to 30.
"One of the main purposes of creating this musical is to give people a good sense of what went on in that era in the 1980s in Chicago," Free said. "Dance and music was the focus, and you would run to the club to get something like a spiritual experience."
Along with co-composer Michael Foley, Free found a ready collaborator for House Musical with co-lyricist and playwright Marcus Waller. Free and Waller had previously collaborated together for Campsongs Productions' spoken word and music series Homolatte at the Chicago bar Big Chicks.
Waller's own personal story proved crucial to the creation of House Musical. Waller traces his courage to come out of the closet during his first visit to the Warehouse. This long-gone, predominantly gay Black club on Chicago's South Side is often credited as the birthplace of house music.
"Seeing all these gay Black men together, dancing and being themselvesI had never experienced anything like that," Waller said. "It was an eye-opening experience all around."
Waller's personal story is fictionalized in House Musical via the character of Dwayne, played by actor Clarence Young. Despite personal struggles with bullying and homophobia, Dwayne develops a sense of community in the house music club scene.
"The character becomes a better version of himself due to the influence of the locations: the Warehouse, the Power Plant, Music Box and Generator," Waller said. "All these places play a very important part in him becoming a gay Black man."
House Musical also deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was devastating at a time when there were no treatments and discrimination was rampant.
"It was like background noise," said Waller about the specter of AIDS. "People started getting sick and disappearing, but the thing for me was that we kept surviving, kept striving and kept dancing no matter what."
In addition to depicting the era's challenges via the storytelling, the creators of House Musical wanted to get the right sound for the show. Free deliberately wrote songs in the first quarter of the musical to sound like '70s funk before the style of house music takes over.
"The house music tracks are very 1986 Chicago," said Free, adding that he used pre-digital analog synthesizers and roll and drum machines to achieve a specific and authentic sound for the musical's pre-recorded song tracks.
"We are definitely going to try to recreate a feel of the Warehouse, but not alienate regular theater goers," Free said. "The volume will not be like out at the clubs."
Along with the musical's director, Dion Walton, Free and Waller are happy to pass along their shared and lived history amid the early days of Chicago's house music scene. Not only are they imparting this personal knowledge of LGBTQ to with the young cast of performers, but hopefully to future audiences as well.
"It's important for me to do things in a community space," said Free about the significance of staging House Musical at the Center on Halsted. "This musical is about community, and so I think it's the right space for it."
And for Waller, writing House Musical was a personally cathartic way to capture his past and a culturally significant part of Chicago history.
"It was very important for me to get this down, so other people could see that this time existed," Waller said. "We were here during the creation of something phenomenal that has gone around the world."
Campsongs Productions' House Musical: Coming of Age in the Age of House plays in the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theatre at 3656 N. Halsted St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from April 20 to 30. Tickets are $30; $25 for seniors and the April 20 preview performance. For tickets, visit CenterOnHalsted.org/housemusical.html .