Just a few years ago, Zack Zadek was a senior struggling through his last semester in college, terrified about his future, “staring at the abyss.”
“When you’re a kid, you think about going to grade school, you think about going to college, and then, after that, the abyss of adulthood. I was on a track. The track was very clear and then, guess what? No more track,” he says. “Graduating from college really denoted the end of childhood in my mind.”
Zadek says the crisis, three years ago, was severe. Then, he imagined what it might be like if he could take a pill that would allow him to live forever. And then he started to write.
“It was the biggest existential crisis I ever had,” he says. “I think it could have derailed me, if I didn’t write the play maybe.”
That play is now a new musical called Deathless, which will run at The Terris Theatre, 33 North Main Street, Chester through Sunday, July 2. It is a musical in development, and Zadek will continue to work on it while it’s performed and afterwards. He recently participated in a related event at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison where he received some early audience feedback. Writing and launching the musical is just one accomplishment Zadek has amassed since he stared into the abyss. He also was a 2017 Jonathan Larson Grant finalist, a 2017 MacDowell fellow, and the 2017 Weston New Musical Award winner.
The musical focuses on a family living in a time when no one ever again has to die from a disease, but the family has recently suffered the loss of one of its members, the mother. While death is definitely a focus, as is so often the case, the contemplation of death leads to insights into how life should be lived.
Zadek says death was something he remembers contemplating even when he was very young.
“I have a very early memory. I was lying awake in bed. It was dark. I remember I was thinking about people who were 80 and 90, but not 110 or 120. I wondered, ‘What happens?’ It didn’t make any sense to me,” he says. “And I remember my mother explaining to me, ‘Yes, you die. Everyone does. But it’s so far away you don’t have to worry about it.’ That was her comfort to me at the time, you don’t have to worry about it.”
And so he didn’t through 5th grade, through 8th grade, but every now and again he would return to his brooding over death, particularly at major milestones in his life. He calls them “small existential crises.”
What’s the Point?
“So obviously something stayed with me, it is an aspect of who I am,” he says.
The conceit of the play—that there might be a way to escape death—came to Zadek during his crisis of spirit his senior year at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He says thinking about death put him in a frame of mind where he wondered, “what’s the point of this?”
“In a couple of years, I’ll be an architect. Whatever. If I tried to get married? Someday we will both die. Have kids? Someday my kids will die,” he says of his thoughts at the time. “It’s a dark spiral.”
So the idea of taking a pill that would allow him to live forever provided a personal escape.
The journey from concept to actually staging a musical was a complex one, he says.
“Writing a musical is a very long process. Developing it is even longer, just sort of by virtue of the moving pieces and all the expenses of a new musical. Musicals aren’t cheap to produce, and are much more expensive than a play. That being said, I was fortunate enough where I had a few opportunities to be a writer at different theaters across the country,” he says.
One of those opportunities was at the Goodspeed, where he was a writer in residence in March 2016, when he was 22 years old.
“The funny part of it all is that I had these opportunities and they’d say, ‘What do you want to work on?’ And I had a million better ideas. But for some reason, I always came back to ‘Maybe I’ll work on that death show,’” he says. “I thought it was my own personal catharsis. I never thought it would be produced. And they were like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever you want.’
“And lo and behold, out of one of these residencies, I came out with a draft, and thought, ‘I kind of think there’s something there,’” he says.
He wasn’t thinking about what might be popular, or what might be marketable.
“My only motivation for this piece when writing it, was that it was what I wanted to say.”
Zadek says the event at R.J. Julia, where he played a few songs and discussed the play, provided him with some valuable early feedback. He says he enjoyed watching as the audience’s expectations about the musical shifted.
“The title can be a little scary,” he says. “Like, ‘I’m going to pay money to see this and they’re going to sing about death?’ It sounds ridiculous. But it’s just as much about life as about death. The two are intertwined. And it’s not at all sci-fi. We are not concerned with how these things work. And it’s not all dark. Even the saddest moments are through a lens of nostalgia and, I would suggest, optimism. To see their faces and talk with them was a wonderful opportunity. It was a chance to meet with Connecticut audiences who will be the first audience for this show.”
Zadek says he loved having the event at R.J. Julia because books played a key role in the conceptualization and development of the show.
“So the first thing I’ll say about that is that books are my first love in life,” he says. “The only love of my life that predates music is books. Reading and books. That’s just who I am. My first passion, whenever I’m writing something, is to make myself a book club of which I’m the only member.”
Does that book club have meetings?
“We have weekly meetings,” he says, laughing. “Totally.”
He says he’s also a huge fan of interdisciplinary studies, something he studied while at NYU.
“I love the idea of trying to fuse different mediums that might not always associated,” he says. “Musical and books? Maybe not. But they are, actually, very related.”
He said reading books, as he was going through his crisis and trying to understand his own feelings toward death, allowed him to think about the process of death and to deal with death as a concept, rather than just as an amorphous fear. His Deathless book club books include:
• When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
• The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
• The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade
• On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
• Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
• Surviving Death by Mark Johnston
• Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
He says Becker’s book was key to his exploration of the subject of death.
“The denial of death. That’s central to the conceit of the play, just as death and the fear of death is central to our society. We formed a society to create the illusion that things matter. This is your job and so you have a purpose. And so on. But in a cosmic blink, we’ll all be gone. The pill, in the show, fundamentally changes Becker’s thesis. And so society takes on a whole deeper meaning if death isn’t there anymore.”
He says When Breath Becomes Air should be read simply because it’s “stunning.”
“It offers a personal account of the dying process...The book is both powerful and an inspiration,” he says.
The Sacred and the Profane explores, as its title suggests, what is sacred and profane.
“And it’s not the same for each person,” he says. “It could be church for one person and theater for another.”
He says the readings were key because it allowed him to create a mix of old traditional ideas with new ideas. He says the mix is what’s important.
“At the end, Deathless is an exploration of the human condition,” he says.
And one more question. Zadek has been expecting it.
If he could live forever, would he?
“You know, I debated whether, in the press for this show, whether I should answer that,” he says.
Of course, he doesn’t have to.
“But I will! I would. I would take that pill on the first day.”
He adds, however, that he’s not sure the play itself offers a definitive opinion on that question.
“I’d be curious to know what audience members think as they leave. I’m just very excited for people to see it.”