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Michigan OPEN

Painless: The Opioid Musical Tours in Fall 2023; Schedules Spring 2024 Tour

Mar 15, 2024

Creation of Painless: The Opioid Musical started after Dr. Chad Brummett, Co-Director of OPEN, presented to a group of high school health policy students and asked them who could go home and easily get their hands on unused opioids within an hour. To his surprise, 75% of the students raised their hands. On his drive home, Dr. Brummett knew that lecturing to students to “not do drugs” was not working, and that’s when he had his aha moment to contact his colleagues at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD).

After some initial discussions, Professor of Musical Theatre Vincent J. Cardinal emailed the students in his program and asked if any of them were interested in writing on a new educational theatre project, an ask that would grab the attention of writer, lyricist, and co-organizer Jacob Ryan Smith. “I was a sophomore at the time when we got an email from the head of our program saying, ‘there is a project coming together educating young people about opioid use, we don’t know what it will become, but if you would like to write on it, let us know,’” said Smith on first joining the project. 

Smith started the process by joining a meeting held by Families Against Narcotics, where people in recovery and loved ones of people with substance use disorder gathered to share their stories. It was here that Smith heard David Clayton’s story, which would soon become the inspiration behind “Boy in the Box.”  “The stories were unbelievable. This group of people were willing to answer the hard questions,” shared Smith. After this meeting, Dr. Brummett emailed students about a chance to showcase this idea in front of a live audience, but they only had one week to write music for it. Smith, alongside then seniors Peter Scattini and Noah Kierserman, took on that challenge and created “Boy in the Box” (Smith), “Slipping Away” (Scattini and Kierserman), and “Little White Pill” (Kierserman), all of which were performed under a week later.

The following year, with Scattini and Kierserman graduated, the Painless team approached Smith about writing the musical himself. Smith accepted and took the music that he and his friends created the year prior and went on to create 8 brand new songs with an accompanying book. Smith remembered his focus on the story and theme while creating the initial draft, stating “The problem at the heart of things is that young people don’t even know the impact of what they’re hearing. They may not even know what an opiate is. The goal here is to create and open pathways for young people to talk about this, because knowing is half the battle.”

Smith and the Painless team began previews during the winter semester of 2019 and were ready to begin showcasing this piece to the greater Ann Arbor community. That was until the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, putting Painless on hold with no clear idea of when things will be able to continue.

While the timeline was unclear, the Painless team didn’t turn their backs when faced with this roadblock. Instead, they continued to refine this musical and shape it to what audiences would eventually see in September 2022, when Painless officially made its return at Community High School at Ann Arbor. One student who was present for this performance was quoted as saying “I never thought that I would be sitting in a room learning about drugs and actually caring to listen.” 

Painless didn’t stop there, as millions of people across the country were able to see a snippet of the musical on The Today Show on November 25, 2022. Curiosity about the musical skyrocketed, leading to an influx of schools inside and outside of Michigan wondering how Painless can visit their school. When Smith talks about the musical, he gets similar questions, stating “Every time I tell people about this show, especially to those in the arts, the first question they ask me is ‘so this is only in Michigan?’”

Painless would officially tour in the fall of 2023, visiting eight schools in southeast Michigan between November and December. Three casts with five SMTD students each performed to a combined 1,700+ students during the fall tour, performing in a variety of spaces from school gyms to auditoriums. “It’s such a fun experience because we are going to the students. We get to perform in various performance spaces, it’s really interesting learning how to adapt from space to space,” said Maya Liu, Production Stage Manager for Painless. 

As a stage manager on this production, Liu, and her team of two other stage managers, is responsible for a broad range of tasks, including running rehearsals, managing the safe transport of technical equipment, putting mics on performers, and running sound cues during the show. 

An interesting aspect to the Painless tour is the ability for children and teachers to connect with the actors after the show. Students have the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about their work telling these stories. Liu added “After every show, we always have students who want to interact with the actors, telling us how this really affects them or people in their lives, and how this information is important to them.”

Painless is an important example of how teaching students sensitive topics can be both engaging and educational. Theatre as a tool for education can allow audiences the opportunity to put a face on the issue and gives them a chance to hear the information through a new lens. “Theatre is unique because you’re bringing people into the world of the story and having them witness these different perspectives,” said Liu.

OPEN and SMTD have high hopes for Painless. “I’m working on systems to make sure that this project continues smoothly,” said Liu. Not only are we working towards bringing this story to schools outside of Michigan, but we are preparing for this experience to last for years to come. 

“Musical theatre still has a reputation for being cheesy and not being able to handle these heavier stories, and I couldn’t agree less. Music is empathy, it is the quickest way for people to understand subtext in any medium, it allows us to let down our walls and feel.” Said Smith. “Music allows young people to really wrap their heads around these stories and concepts and helps them understand the meaning behind what they’re seeing on stage.”

Painless is currently scheduled for a spring tour this May.