The Amazing, (Mostly) True Tale of John Muir
A New Musical by Matt Wolfe and Bruce Monroe
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."
What is Tree Hugger?
Tree Hugger is a musical about the life of an American hero, John Muir, and it's probably the first and only musical “bro-mance” between a man and his tree.
Muir was a botanist, a naturalist, and an author of nature books, none of which sounds like a natural fit for a musical, but Muir’s experiences were larger than life. Without John Muir’s passion for the wild, America would be without the National Park system as we know it.
Muir wrote sweeping, musical prose as he narrated his adventures and the wonders of America’s west to people of power in the East. He “interviewed” a bear, “rode” an avalanche, and took a nature walk that lasted more than a thousand miles. He spent whole days talking to one flower. His sense of whimsy and wonder was far beyond the norm.
One of the toughest concepts for us to iron out was how to portray Muir’s relationship with nature. While reading about this man who would spend all day talking to a flower, it clicked. Tree Hugger is structured with one actor playing Muir and the rest of a small ensemble switching hats between the humans in Muir’s life and the plants he befriended. Having actors play trees and flowers allowed us to add a lot of humor to the piece and keep it from becoming too lofty or serious, but most importantly, it let us gain a deeper appreciation of Muir’s love for the wild.
The “people as plants” concept led to our most important discovery. The other main character in the show is a Douglas Fir from Yosemite, inspired by a story from Muir’s writings.
Muir's friendship with the Fir allowed us to dig deep into the central theme of the piece – time. Muir is always torn between his love of the wild, embodied in the tree, and the rest of what life demands. Just like all of us, Muir found there was never enough time in life to do the things that mattered most.
Tree Hugger has been in development since 2010. It has undergone three workshop readings to date. Parts of the score have been featured in concert at Village Theatre’s Festival of New Works and at the Seattle Mainstreet Musical Festival, where the presentation won an audience favorite award.
About the Writers
Bruce Monroe (Music and Lyrics) is a graduate of the Music Theatre Writing MFA program at NYU. He’s an accomplished composer, and he has had a long, very successful career as a leading music director, and orchestrator in Seattle. Over the years he has become the go-to professional when either Village Theatre or the 5th Avenue wants to bring new life to classic scores or make a small-budget orchestra pit for a new work sound twice its size.
Matt Wolfe (Book) has worked in professional theater for over twenty years as an actor, director, educator, and writer. Since 2003, his work as a performer in Seattle and New York has been dominated by the development process of new works at every professional level, from a “New Vaudeville” style adaptation of Goodnight Moon at Seattle Children’s Theatre, to innumerable new works at Village Theatre (including Million Dollar Quartet), to Pre-Broadway workshops of Catch Me If You Can, A Christmas Story, Aladdin, and Saving Aimee at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Saving Aimee brought him to Broadway in the world premiere of Scandalous.
Hear the music of
These demos feature the talents of Matt Wolfe as "Muir", Nick DeSantis as "Tree" and other characters, Jared Michael Brown as Muir's father "Daniel" and others, and Bryan Tramontana as "Jeanne Carr" and others.
"Ride the Storm" takes place as Muir accepts his destiny as the defender of America's beautiful, sacred places. Inspired by a true story, Muir climbs his friend Tree, a Douglas Fir, to experience the glory of a Sierra windstorm first hand.
"My Time" is a song sequence that chronicles Muir's determination as a young man to escape from his strict upbringing to follow his heart into the wild.
Muir was famous for a thousand-mile nature walk he wrote about in one of his books, but he was prone to wander long before that, sometimes spending all day with just one flower. "Goin' For a Walk" captures his first taste of true freedom and friendship on the nature trail.
"That's What I Call A Friend" tells the story of Muir's first meeting with his best friend in Tree Hugger, a Douglas Fir known simply as "Tree" or "Doug" to his friends.
Inspired by one of Muir's real-life stories called "Interview with a Bear", this scene from a public showcase of Tree Hugger demonstrates how the show is able to balance Muir's sincere love of nature with some lighter moments, using actors to portray the plants and animals Muir meets along his journey.
Act One of Tree Hugger chronicles John Muir’s discovery of his love for the wild and his destiny to defend it.
It opens with Muir at the end of a long, desperate journey, discovering what he considers to be his spiritual home, the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in California. There, he meets a Douglas Fir who feels like there is nothing special in being one in a million of similar trees. When Muir helps Tree to see his individual beauty they strike up a friendship.
Tree gets Muir to tell him the story of how he arrived in California. Muir remembers a strict upbringing with his father and a backbreaking amount of work on his boyhood farm. The work kept him from enjoying his love of nature and literally almost killed him.
Muir begins to relive his journey, starting with his escape from the Wisconsin farm where he grew up. Muir fights for the time to educate himself, and some inventions he creates win him a chance to study at a university. There, he meets a mentor who opens a door for him to see the wonder of nature’s design.
Inspired, Muir leaves school to begin a journey that sees him enjoying true freedom for the first time in his life, taking a nature walk that lasts for thousands of miles. Along the way, the voice of his father haunts him and tries to convince him he’s wasting his time.
Having brought Tree up to speed, Muir is now determined to enjoy all the time he wants in his newfound Hetch-Hetchy home, but a mysterious stranger convinces him that if he doesn’t take action, the wild beauty he loves so much won’t be around to enjoy anymore. Westward expansion and the Industrial Revolution are threatening to destroy the wild lands of America. Muir challenges the oppressive voice of his father in order to take his place as a prophetic voice in the wilderness.
Act Two opens with Muir taking his place as a noted writer defending the importance of places like Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite. He "Interviews a Bear" and "Rides an Avalanche", and his adventures are published on the East Coast. There, people of influence and power are being swayed to protect the beauty he explores and writes about so passionately.
Muir’s quest and revelry in the mountains is then derailed by his first love and a desire for family. He struggles to balance his love of the wild and his duty to family, nearly working himself to death once again and losing his connection with his best friend, the Douglas Fir.
When he returns to Hetch-Hetchy and its neighboring Yosemite Valley, he finds his spiritual home is in true danger of being destroyed. In particular, his beloved Hetch-Hetchy Valley is in danger of being drowned to create a reservoir for San Francisco. Muir fights to preserve what he considers to be an irreplaceable, sacred temple, but the fight itself costs him valuable time with his best friend and his beloved home.
The final result of Muir’s battle and the fate of his friendship with Tree await the future audiences of Tree Hugger.