While he was plotting his first foray into writing a musical, theatrical wunderkind Justin Huertas fell in love with the folk band Joseph.
“Their harmonies were insane,” he says, “and how simple and transporting just one guitar can be was so captivating to me.”
The Portland trio inspired Huertas to develop a novel approach to musical writing. Instead of developing a book, Huertas took a decidedly indie-rock approach, reaching out to two close friends in the local Seattle theatre scene, Kirsten “Kiki” DeLohr and William A. Williams.
“Every song I literally brought in to ‘my band’ and taught to them by ear,” Huertas says. “I would come in and bring script pages, lyrics, sometimes chords. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, and this is as close as anything to being in one.”
The culmination of their work is Lizard Boy, a folk-rock superhero coming-of-age story with plenty of comic book flair, making its South Bay debut at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley with the original cast. Lizard Boy follows the story of Trevor, who’s born with green, scaly skin and forced onto society’s margins—until he finds love and a higher responsibility. The musical is “told” by its three stars in the form of a live folk band recounting the myth of Lizard Boy.
The musical’s superhero aesthetic is one with much history for Huertas.
“Hero myths have always been a part of my life,” he says. “Comic books came first for me. I grew up with superheroes, like X-Men, Spider-Man and Power Rangers. When I had the opportunity to create a show, it was a no-brainer—comic book superheroes!”
After starting to play cello at ten years old and singing in high school, Huertas became interested in acting and dove headfirst in the world of musical theater. “Theater is where all those skills intersect,” he says.
While he gained some national experience playing cello on the national tour for the musical Spring Awakening, Huertas found a truly foundational home in the Seattle theater scene.
“The company of Lizard Boy, the four lizards (director and actors), all came into the Seattle theater scene around the same time,” Huertas says. “Whenever we got an opportunity, we would reach out and grab the other.”
When commissioned by a local theater to write his first musical, Huertas says at first he was nervous. “It was something I wasn’t comfortable enough to do yet, but I knew exactly who to reach out to.” Huertas called up Williams and DeLohr, brought in Brandon Ivie to direct, and the band was formed.
The play’s stripped-down indie sensibilities, sense of humor and set papered with gorgeous comic art (also drawn by Huertas) has won a lot of fans, but what seems to resonate most is the heartfelt narrative about finding belonging and identity from the margins.
“I wanted to create a character who was queer, but the queerness was incidental to the main character’s story,” Huertas says. “All of Trevor’s struggle with his identity had always been about racial otherness, growing up brown and Filipino in very white spaces.”
He was surprised, then, to see the play frequently referred to as a coming out story, and LGBTQ theatergoers telling him it resonated so strongly with their own experience of accepting their identity. Similar to Marvel’s X-Men, Huertas has created a story that speaks to a struggle a lot more universal than he might have initially thought.
“I suppose it still is something of a coming out story for Trevor, about claiming your own power,” says Huertas. “It’s Marvel Comics meets Once meets Grindr.”
Opens Wed, 8pm, $25
CPA, Mountain View