Morgan Smith

Averno Universe continues to expand with ‘Bittersummer’

Averno Universe will never run out of stories. That’s obvious when you listen to Bittersummer, the new musical released by Broadway Records on June 4. It’s the latest Averno release but it actually takes place much earlier in continuity—and it’s a story about LGBTQIA characters brought to life by an LGBTQIA creative team and cast.

To get the inside story on how Bittersummer came together, and just how Averno is the franchise that every franchise wants to be, I re-connected with Morgan Smith. Here’s what Morgan had to say about this musical and the universe as a whole.

Brittany Frederick: We spoke just about six months ago about the release of the last Averno Universe musical. Now here you are with Bittersummer. Creatively, how do you turn projects around so quickly?

Morgan Smith: Projects get turned around very quickly in Averno. Our third album came out in January because we had a completely surprise album that we told nobody about It was a clue in an ARG, an alternate reality game that we were running online; we dropped an entire musical as a clue. And so that was actually our second musical. That came out January 3rd, and then January 15th we had our third musical, which was our second one with Broadway Records. And now our fourth musical, third with Broadway Records, is out.

I have so many more ideas than I can humanly write. There’s definitely not a shortage of ideas. Currently I’m writing another novel right now. I finished an entire podcast musical in the intervening time. I’ve got another novel that I’m working on, that’s a novel within a novel. And I just started a seven-book series. There’s definitely not a shortage of ideas. And honestly, I prefer to work fast. I think that it really fosters more creativity if you’re not getting all hung up on just getting in your own way. I think we should just go and do the things that we want to do and do them quickly.

BF: Bittersummer deals with some very serious subjects and very personal subjects. What made you want to tackle these topics specifically?

MS: I’ve been ready to tackle that kind of stuff publicly since I was quite young. People actually told me that I needed to wait a while, because I was talking very publicly about my own issues that I had with eating disorders and self-harm and stuff like that when I was 18, 19. People were like you can’t do that in a professional space. You can’t talk about that on your Instagram or people won’t want to work with you. Or people told me that it would make me inappropriate if I talked about my issues with an eating disorder. I’ve always been ready and willing to talk about the harder parts of life, and I’m really excited that I’m able to, in this musical, broach so many heavy topics, but also it still feels very light in a lot of ways.

BF: Where is that balance for you? In doing justice to those issues but also not having this musical turn into something that potentially brings down the audience.

MS: I think it has to do a lot with the ways in which you’re depicting the sort of heavier topics. It talks about abuse and sort of alludes to sexual trauma, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, a lot of really heavy stuff, but we also never actually see any of it onstage. The way that Bittersummer is staged—which obviously we can’t see because it’s not staged right now, this is just the album—it’s a single-location musical that’s set at the edge of the woods at this clubhouse. And so we see teenagers dealing with all of these issues and stuff like that, but we’re also not profiting off of the image of young women being hurt.

I really liked that it’s never shown. We aren’t just sitting here for an hour and a half watching young women getting hurt or struggling or anything like that. We see mostly them in times of this incandescent joy. We’re seeing these really intimate, lovely moments between them. We’re seeing crazy nights and goofy dance parties and fake fashion shows and photo shoots and playing dress up and being kids. I think that it’s important to be able to talk about all of those things that they’re going through at home, but in showing their joy and showing their relationships to each other and showing how important that is, we keep it in a space that’s giving us means of processing it, rather than just profiting off of trauma.

BF: You have an entirely queer cast for Bittersummer and queer writers as well. Did you specifically want to do an all-queer production, or did that come organically?

MS:  I am queer, my partner is queer, our best friends are queer, the cast of this is—we’re all members of that community. And so when I write stories and when I create these worlds, most of the time they’re queer. And then most of the time when I’m casting people, they’re queer just because that’s the world that I live in.

BF: One of the coolest stories from the production of Bittersummer is how you got Annalise Emerick on board. You just approached her by random email?

MS: I didn’t know her at all. (laughs) I went on her website and I found her email and I reached out. I was like, hi, you don’t know me from Adam. I am a writer. Your music meant a lot to me growing up. And I want to turn this play that I’ve written into a musical, but your music is the only music I can imagine for it. And she said yes. We had a phone call. I sent her the script and she was like, let’s do it.

Her music meant so much to me and getting to put it in the story is just insane. I had a close group of young women that I spent my summers with in a rural town in Virginia listening to this music. These songs were our summer playlist. That was only two or three years ago. And so then a few years later, being able to release this album with her, with this story, it’s mind-blowing.

BF: Are there songs on the album that particularly resonate with you? What should people definitely listen to?

MS: For me, it’s always the first two, “Siren Song” and “The Story,” and then the finale, “Twinkling Lights.” “Twinkling Lights” is so important to me. It was my favorite song for two years in high school, before any of this happened, and I think that it’s such a beautiful message and it’s got such an incredible heart in it. The opening, “Siren Song,” it’s ethereal. It is what witches sound like.

Then “The Story” is actually the first time we get to hear Quinn. And as Quinn is kind of, in a lot of ways, the main character of Averno and the through-line between a lot of the stories, it’s really powerful and impactful to hear that first moment when we get to hear his voice.

BF: What comes next for Averno Universe? How do you move the story forward from Bittersummer?

MS: This is actually one of the earliest pieces in the Averno universe. This is the first out of this primary storyline, so there’s some prequel stuff. The primary timeline of Averno is from 2016 to 2020, and this musical is set in the summer of 2016, right before everybody goes to college. Then Live from Averno, the podcast, that’s Quinn after this musical. Over and Out happens immediately after this musical; a bunch of other shows that are not released happen in the sort of years following this musical.

So in a lot of ways, this is the first musical of the Averno Universe. And it is the first musical that I wrote for Averno. It’s ironic because it’s actually the fourth release, but it was the first one that I wrote. And so I think that it’s kind of giving us the the heart of Averno and sort of the birthplace of it in a lot of ways. It feels a little bit like a prequel.

We’re actually running an entire virtual summer camp for all ages over Discord and sort of online. There’s a lot of fun role-playing and art challenges and stuff like that. It’s got 20,000 people in the Discord already and we opened it four days ago. So it’s a lot. (laughs) But if anybody is looking for something fun to do from June 12th to 20th, we will be running that event. And honestly, it’s my favorite event of the year for Averno. People show up in droves for it. It’s awesome.

To listen to Bittersummer now, click here. You can discover more about the entire Averno Universe here.

Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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