Milwaukee-area native playwright Aaron Thielen has a hit on his hands. His original musical “Hero,” which runs through Aug. 19 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., is receiving rave reviews from the press and audiences.
The story concerns Hero (Erich Bergen), who lives at home with his widowed father Al (Don Forston), above the comic book store they own. Hero, who draws his life like a comic book, is faced with a series of important and potentially life-changing decisions, especially when former flame Jane (Heidi Kettenring) enters the frame. The play touches on themes of love and loss and finding the power within you.
How much of Aaron is in the character of hero?
That is a good question. Very little, actually. It’s not autobiographical. It all came out of my head, so I’m sure there’s a little bit of me in it.
Do comic books play a role in your life?
Yes. I think that like a lot of young boys growing up ... they were definitely a part of my life. I loved the idea of having a superpower, and I think it resonates with real people (laughs). ... I like the idea of people having a gift and being accepted with that gift.
In the comic book world, are you a Marvel or DC Comics fan?
I don’t discriminate between either. There are things I like about both. The thing about DC is it’s been around so long. I’ve always been a huge Green Lantern fan. But I really like Marvel and where it’s gone, especially this year. There’s been a lot of really amazing stuff. I like that.
Do you draw at all?
Not even a little bit (big laugh).
How important was it for “Hero” to have a Milwaukee setting?
The idea sort of started there. I had been working on new works, and I thought it would be fun to go out on my own and write something, even just as a pet project.
There’s an antique shop right by Allen-Bradley downtown, and it’s quintessential Milwaukee. It’s kind of small, but it’s got two bay windows. It’s an old tavern turned into an antique shop. I used to go there and look around. In the back of the shop is a yard with a house attached. I thought it would make an awesome set. I kept thinking, “Who would live there? If this shop wasn’t an antique shop what would it be? A comic bookshop. Who lives there? Who runs it? What are the lives that happened?” That’s what it all generated from. Some of the characters are based on people that I know.
Your cousin’s name is Kirk and there’s the scene where the character of Kirk dresses up for halloween as Captain Kirk.
Yes, it happened during rehearsals, but I never made the connection (laughs).
What do you think the Comic-Con crowd would think of “Hero”?
I don’t know. Part of me thinks they would think musicals are nerdy, and not in a good way. There might be a hierarchy of going, “We’re nerds, but we are not that nerdy.”
That’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Right! That would be something that they could go, “Ugh, that’s so lame! Come on let’s go see Kevin Smith.” Whom I love! I always thought, because Comic-Con just ended, and I do have friends that love going, that it would be fun, next year, if the show has a life, to go there and see, could we have an audience there.
It seems like sort of a natural fit.
This is a big generalization, but I think that they might at first go (shakes his head) and then they might hear that it’s pretty OK.They might realize that it’s not making fun of it. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of the show. I feel like so many contemporary musicals now comment on the form or they’re cynical and that’s their definition of the form. I feel like this is a throwback musical in that it doesn’t make fun of itself, it doesn’t poke fun of musicals, like, “I know it’s a musical, but were cool.” It embraces the musical form. It’s about depression and finding oneself and struggling and finding humor in things that maybe aren’t funny and the goofiness of the world we live in. That’s what I’m most excited about the show, that that’s what I was able to achieve.
“Hero,” like comic books, puts emphasis on the role that fate plays in our lives. What part has fate played in your life?
(Long pause) That’s an interesting question. This career is just weird in general; especially my trajectory, starting out as an actor and landing here. Six or seven years ago I never would’ve guessed what I would be doing. When I was performing, I thought, “I’ll be doing this forever.” I never thought I’d write five years ago. I never went to school for it. It was never a thing I thought that I needed to do with my life. Fate brought the right people into my life and the right situation. The fact that I did (the stage musical adaptation of) “For The Boys” last year, it’s ludicrous that I was able to pull that off. Even just to get it on stage, the fact that that happened is fate stepping in and making that happen. But I wouldn’t have been able to do “Hero” had I not done it.