Musical Spreads Love for Explorer Ernest Shackleton

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Remember the name Sir Ernest Shackleton from history class? Many don’t. Musicians Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn certainly didn’t. The husband and wife composer/lyricist team discovered the early-20th century explorer at an exhibit in California. He’s the inspiration behind Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, opening this weekend at George Street Playhouse.

“There aren’t very many true-life stories that are like this. Most of them end in tragedy or people eating each other,” Milburn said.

Milburn is only half joking. Shackleton’s story reads like a legend. On his third expedition to the Antarctic, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice and ultimately sank. Shackleton’s crew of more than 20 men survived for over a year after that, mostly adrift on sheets of ice. And, against all odds, Shackleton managed to trek across the ocean in a small boat, reach civilization at a whaling station and save every single one of his men.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about [it]. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about him before,” Vigoda said.

Tony Award-winning book writer of the Broadway musical Memphis and New Jersey native Joe DiPietro was similarly struck. A month after the three met, DiPietro had a rough draft.

“It’s both about very much a woman who is a young woman who just had a baby, and is sort of an indie musician, and has come across some hard times both personally and professionally. And she gets a call out of the blue one day from the explorer Ernest Shackleton,” DiPietro said.

Indie musician is a role Vigoda knows well. She and Milburn are two-thirds of the self-described “theatrical power-pop trio” GrooveLily. Vigoda accompanies herself on the electric violin live in the show, and she doesn’t stop there.

“Even though it is a two-person musical, it is incredibly complex technically,” she said.

“She lays down one track of herself playing violin, and then presses a button and lays down another track of herself, and then a third one, and then she starts singing, and then she records more tracks of herself singing, and then more tracks of herself playing drums,” Milburn explained.

When asked how she keeps track of that, Vigoda said, “I’m a good multi-tasker, I guess.”

She’s also got musical director Ryan O’Connell with her throughout the show via earpiece and actor Wade McCollum, Ernest Shackleton, on banjo. That’s actually pulled right from the history books.

“They were on the ice flows and all they could carry with them was two pounds of gear each. Shackleton insisted on bringing the 14-pound banjo along so that there would be music and camaraderie,” Vigoda said.

It’s now the centennial of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition — the journey lasted from 1914 through 1917. Vigoda says she thinks the anniversary is making people more aware of the inspirational explorer.

“I definitely think that remembering what he was able to do in the face of those terrible, terrible circumstances is so helpful when we face our everyday problems, whatever they might be,” Vigoda said.

DiPietro, Vigoda and Milburn all say the explorer has become an inspiration in tough times and a reminder not to complain too much about Northeast winters.