Given the chance to guess, you might venture that “Niagara: The Musical” is a musical version of the 1953 Marilyn Monroe noir-thriller “Niagara,” or a musical exploration of the Native American origins of the Niagara Falls tour boat, Maid of the Mist.
Well, Marilyn doesn’t make an appearance in the show, which had a run at the District of Columbia Arts Center in Washington, D.C., this July, but the Maid of the Mist does, in a production based on thirteen people that attempted to “go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” Well, not all of them used the proverbial barrel…
Perhaps the better question is who came up with that idea? And that hits a lot closer to home.
The Origin Story
Thomas Folderauer, the show’s composer and lyricist, and Jacob Oswald, book writer and playwright of “Niagara: The Musical,” both grew up in Carroll County, but they didn’t meet until attending Westminster High School.
A year apart in age—Folderauer is now 22 and Oswald is 21—the two had perfect interests for a musical theater creative team.
“Tommy has always been very musically gifted,” Oswald says. “And I was ping-ponging around different things at the time. I was into movie production and video production. And now, I just like to write. So, we were both interested in telling stories.”
“Music was an early interest,” adds Folderauer, who was introduced to music in preschool and now plays piano and percussion, and sings. “Songwriting composing came later. I always had a big inclination toward music. And that grew into band and choir and just kept growing.”
It was a chance book recommendation in middle school that eventually led to the core idea for “Niagara: The Musical.”
In the book—a compendium of weird deaths—Folderauer came upon the story of Bobby Leach, the first man and second person (the first was Annie Taylor in 1901), to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. (Later, a slip on an orange peel led to his death.)
“And as I started to research him more, I found more and more daredevils, and I started to find that they’re all strange and all had these very weird endings—or very weird successes,” Folderauer says. “So, it was a thread I pulled, and I just couldn’t stop pulling.”
And so began the long evolution of “Niagara: The Musical.” For a high school electronic music class, Folderauer put together songs about a dozen or more of the daredevils who attempted to brave the Horseshoe Falls. Later, during his sophomore year in college, he asked Oswald to collaborate on the project as a writer.
“I knew I was going to ask him to write the book because he’s very good with story and stringing things together in writing,” Folderauer says.
“He knew I liked to write short films, and have ambitions for that,” Oswald recalls. “One day, he started showing me the music and said, ‘I think you could be a really good writer, and I really want you to write this with me.’ He was the first person to believe in me in that way.”
After Oswald and Folderauer both graduated and went on to college—Oswald at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, and Folderauer at Wagner College in New York—the two kept working on the show and tested versions of it first at a Connecticut high school and then, last year, at a natural outdoor amphitheater at a Westminster farm.
The show, was “gutted and rewritten” multiple times, until they felt it was ready for a bigger audience at DC Arts Center for a month-long run. Set in Bridge Street Tavern, a dive bar based on a café owned by Leach, the show unspools as each character recounts their exploits in music and song.
DCTheaterArts.org reviewer John Stoltenberg wrote that Folderauer and Oswald “have cleverly developed Folderauer’s idea to adapt the stories of 13 of those maybe-deranged daredevils into a musical,” which he calls “off-the-wall fascinating.”
“The first thing to be said about ‘Niagara’ is that the music Folderauer has composed is fabulous. I loved it. When the ensemble sings its harmonies as if a chorale, the effect is glorious,” he adds.
For more information on “Niagara: The Musical,” including updates on future shows, visit https://niagaramusical.com.