Utah playwright and composer Brittany Bullen didn't set out to write a musical about the plight of homeless people. She just wanted to write a story with some great female roles.
"In the beginning, I wanted to write a musical about a women's shelter, simply because I wanted to write roles for all the fabulous actresses I know," Bullen said.
But as Bullen began researching and writing the musical, her focus changed as she realized the project had deeper potential and a more significant purpose.
"As I heard more stories and saw more faces, I realized that I had something much more important to say," Bullen said. "I want to share the stories of a people without a voice, and to bring the growing epidemic of homelessness into the spotlight."
The result is the new musical "Shelter," being staged at the Murray Theater through May 28. Salt Lake City resident Bullen wrote the book and lyrics for the production, and co-wrote the music with her brother-in-law Newell Bullen, also of Salt Lake City.
The production is directed by Brighton Sloan, a former Weber State University student now attending Brigham Young University. Proceeds from the show will help the homeless in the Salt Lake City area through several related organizations.
Not all drama
"Shelter" tells the story of Jeanine, an employee at a women's shelter in Philadelphia, where she leads a support group.
The characters in the shelter include a woman who has been through three divorces, a mother whose drug-addicted son bankrupted her and then died, a young mother whose husband has been deported and her children taken away, and a woman who was hit by a car and is suffering mental challenges as result, including an inclination toward pyromania.
That may sound like grim subject matter for a night out at the theater, but Bullen and cast members say the musical is not about gloom, doom and despair -- it's about something else.
"There is hope in every situation," said Brittany Shamy, a former WSU student. As depressing as the subject matter is, Shamy said, she appreciates the humor injected in the story.
"The writer really tried to make it uplifting and not just all sad, sad, sad," Shamy said. "There are really great moments in it that will just make you laugh."
An intersection of lives
For the first part of the run, Shamy is playing the role of Katie, a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman. Katie comes to the shelter to do some community service work as a result of a traffic incident.
"She pretty much thinks it's going to be the easiest thing ever, but the girls are really rude to her and then she sings a song called 'Fix Your Face,' " Shamy said. "She's this hilarious, crazy character with a heavy Philadelphia accent. She sort of reminds me of Fran from 'The Nanny.' "
Later on in the run, Shamy will take over the more serious role of Mollie, a resident of the homeless shelter.
"She had an accident when she was younger and she started to black out," Shamy said. "When she blacks out, she would unconsciously kind of wake up and go set things on fire. She kind of has this weird obsession with fire and she can't help it."
One of the people trying to help Molly is her well-to-do older sister Natalie -- played by Roy resident Jackie Manning -- who sings the song "Come Home" to her troubled little sister.
"Molly's character basically has a home, but she is kind of crazy and just wanders," Manning said. "So I just find her at these different shelters and just ask her to come home."
Message of hope
While elements of the story are heart-wrenching, Manning said the theme of hope is reflected throughout the musical. She also said the story asks more fortunate individuals, like her character, to reconsider and re-evaluate their attitudes toward the homeless.
"It gives you a different look at it. Sometimes we judge homeless people and forget that there is a reason they are there. They didn't start out there. I think it gives us a good look at being respectful to all kinds of people," Manning said.
"It also sends a message to people who are in a bad situation that no matter how bad things can get, you never should lose hope. There is always hope for you. You've got to keep trying and moving forward. So, it's kind of a dual message."
Clinton resident and WSU student Kimberly Turner is also a member of the ensemble, playing a shelter worker and homeless woman.
"Not all the women are there because they got involved with drugs," said Turner. "Some of them are there because bad things happened to them in their lives, things that were beyond their control."
Regardless of why they're living at the shelter, it is a low point in their lives. However, Turner said, the simple things in life -- family, dreams of their own home, dinner with loved ones -- give them hope.
"Just those simple things that they wish for give them hope for a better future," Turner said. "It's kind of inspiring."
Pass it on
Turner is impressed by the level of talent in the musical, which includes a cast of over 20 women and one man.
"It's pretty amazing," Turner said. "I'm continually impressed by how talented my castmates are. I'm urging people to come see it because it is going to be a fantastic show."
And Turner applauds Bullen in her development of the main character, Jeanine, the one who brings hope into the lives of the women.
"It's kind of amazing how her character does that," Turner said.
Bullen hopes audience members will come to a similar conclusion.
"One person can make a significant difference, even if only a few see it," Bullen said. "The heroine, Jeanine, makes that difference, and the message of the show is that you can, too."