Brotherly reflections: Two operatic brothers tell their story in ‘My Evil Twin’

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  • Director Ron Bashford, left, works with playwright Harley Erdman, seated, and twins Jim and John Demler, background left and right, during a rehearsal for “My Evil Twin” in the Curtain Theater at UMass Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Back off, brother!”  Jim Demler, left, gestures to his identical twin, John, at right during a rehearsal for “My Evil Twin” at UMass Amherst. Director Ron Bashford is in the middle. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Demler twins sing “Two for the Price of One” during a rehearsal for the cabaret “My Evil Twin” at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, center, accompanies twins Jim and John Demler, left and right, on the song “Two for the Price of One” during a recent rehearsal for the musical cabaret “My Evil Twin.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, left, accompanies twins John and Jim Demler, center and right, on the song “Two for the Price of One” during a recent rehearsal for the musical cabaret “My Evil Twin.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Director Ron Bashford, left, talks with Jim Demler, right, and his brother, John (off camera) during a recent rehearsal for “My Evil Twin.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Twins Jim and John Demler, center and top right, rehearse “My Evil Twin” with director Ron Bashford, left, playwright Harley Erdman, right, and composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, top left, in the Curtain Theater at UMass Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Twins John and Jim Demler, left and right, respectively, sing the song “Two for the Price of One” during a recent rehearsal for “My Evil Twin.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Twins Jim and John Demler, center and right, rehearse “My Evil Twin” with playwright Harley Erdman in the Curtain Theater at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, center, accompanies twins Jim and John Demler, left and right, in the song “Two for the Price of One” during a recent rehearsal for “My Evil Twin.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John and Jim Demler in the orginal production of “My Evil Twin” from 2019. The musical cabaret returns to the Northampton Community Arts Trust building Aug. 13-15. Photo by Daniel Keller

  • John and Jim Demler in the orginal production of “My Evil Twin” from 2019. The musical cabaret returns to the Northampton Community Arts Trust building Aug. 13-15. Photo by Daniel Keller

  • Jim and John Demler in the orginal production of “My Evil Twin” from 2019. The musical cabaret returns to the Northampton Community Arts Trust building Aug. 13-15. Photo by Daniel Keller

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2021 2:20:33 PM

The phrase “evil twin” pops up in a fair number of books, movies, songs, computer games and more, given the thematic possibilities of blaming someone’s misdeeds on a doppelgänger, or the idea that you can create an alternative identity for yourself.

As popsters They Might Be Giants put it in one of their songs, “My evil twin, bad weather friend / He always wants to start when I want to begin.”

Jim and John Demler, by contrast, are real identical twins who have been and remain close, though each jokes that he’s better looking and more charming than the other. But they’ve also had enough ups and downs over the years, even as especially close siblings, to be at the center of a new theatrical production called, well, “My Evil Twin.”

It’s a musical cabaret starring the two veteran singers (bass) from Massachusetts, who have sung opera, oratorios, musical theater and more. But “My Evil Twin,” which plays at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building Aug. 13-15, is not a fictional story: It’s based on the real-life stories of the Demler brothers, raised in Rochester, New York, and now living in Boston (Jim) and Pittsfield (John).

Using humor and some more poignant moments, the production looks at the special bonds identical twins can have — as well as the intense sibling rivalries those relationships can bring — as the Demlers, now in their mid-60s, revisit their high school years, their work to become professional singers, and the reckoning both must face when their plans don’t work out exactly as imagined.

“My Evil Twin” is the most recent work devised by Harley Erdman, a playwright and librettist who teaches theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and composer and lyricist Eric Sawyer, who teaches music at Amherst College. The two friends previously created two acclaimed operas, “The Garden of Martyrs” and “The Scarlet Professor,” based on historical events in the Valley.

Erdman and Sawyer connected with the Demler brothers on “The Scarlet Professor” in 2017, which revisited the saga of Smith College professor Newton Arvin, arrested in 1960 with a few other Smith professors and local men for possessing pictures of semi-naked men. Sawyer was looking for someone to play the role of a police detective for the new opera, and when he heard Jim Demler during a performance at Boston Lyric Opera, he thought he’d found his man.

“I didn’t know him, but I liked his voice,” Sawyer said. “So I called him about coming to one of our workshops and he said, ‘I’m busy that day, but why don’t you ask my brother?’”

That’s how he and Erdman learned about John Demler, who sings in various productions in the Berkshires and also teaches French and Spanish at a middle school in Dalton, just outside Pittsfield. “Because of their different schedules, we got John for the workshops, and then Jim for the staged production, and they were both terrific,” Sawyer said.

Looking back, Erdman says it’s not entirely clear how the idea of staging a production based around the Demler brothers came about, though he says their basic skills alone represented a good entry point.

“Even though everything else was undefined, you have these two incredibly charismatic, compelling, identical twins ... who are tremendous on stage and have amazing operatic voices,” he said. “Like a lot of devised theater or new work, you’re starting with the idea of the performers rather than a particular idea or theme or script.”

Another attraction for Erdman: His wife is an identical twin, as was his mother. “I’ve been surrounded by identical twins for literally my entire life,” he said.

Strutting their stuff

After “The Scarlet Professor,” Erdman and Sawyer spent time getting to know the brothers over the next year, interviewing them about their experiences (they also talked to the twins’ sister).

They found the brothers’ histories, and their distinct personalities — John something of a comedian, Jim a little more serious — a compelling framework for a stripped-down production that mostly features just the brothers on stage (Sawyer provides piano accompaniment and a few comic voice parts).

The songs and script, Erdman says, to which the Demlers and “My Evil Twin” director Ron Bashford all made significant contributions, represent “a slightly fictionalized version of their lives. It maybe has them playing more heightened versions of themselves, but the specifics of the story are true.”

John Demler, in a recent phone call, recalls sitting down with his brother, Erdman, and Sawyer “at Harley’s kitchen table and just digging into our past, telling them our stories … and they just took it and ran with it and did an amazing job.”

Humor is a key part of that story. It’s entertaining indeed to see two older, bespectacled men strutting with mock braggadocio early in “My Evil Twin” as they recall their high school glory days as star athletes, school newspaper editors, and standouts in the annual musical. “Everyone loved the Demler twins!” Jim says. “The twins are invited to every party … And you know what parties were like in 1971.”

That’s Sawyer’s cue to offer a little background music, as he plays the intro and first few bars of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and the brothers ham it up with a bit of arm-swinging, pelvis-rolling dancing.

The twins, as many twins are wont to do, ended up in the same college, in New Mexico, where Jim recounts a story of setting up a date with a young woman who, like him, is involved in the school opera. But when he goes to meet her at the campus bar, he finds John with his arm around her in one of the booths.

“What a girl,” says John. “She was all smiles.”

“Why shouldn’t she be?” Jim says. “She thought she was on a date with Jim Demler!” He sings one song, “Too Nice a Guy,” about how girls just don’t think he’s exciting or dangerous enough — and how deep down he really wants to be the bad guy.

But the twins revisit more serious stories as well: their hard-drinking father, their mother’s emotional collapse when they were boys. John also had to contend with Jim’s greater success as a singer and his struggles to master his own singing voice. Jim, meanwhile, goes through a tough divorce in his mid-40s, and at one point the brothers heap insults on one another, both saying the other is a failure.

“They’ve had to take a lot of risks with this show,” Erdman says. “They’ve had to be vulnerable and expose things about their lives … But they’ve jumped into it with a lot of courage and heart.”

“I think part of the story is how time equalizes things,” Sawyer adds. “They grew up up close but competitive, then they were a little more distant, then they come back together.”

In an email, Jim Demler, who teaches voice at Boston University, said he feels revisiting the past hasn’t actually been that difficult: “I think the reverse is true — it’s cathartic. Every time we rehearse those scenes I remember something new, which I enjoy.”

He also joked that he and John have a “a great relationship! We’re far enough away distance-wise so our wives don’t get too annoyed with us. We’ve maintained a weekly trash-talking Yahtzee game on Zoom since the pandemic started that we always look forward to.”

For his part, John Demler said he feels “blessed” to be able to perform alongside Jim, who he calls “my best friend,” at this stage of his life. “It’s just a really special, kind of pinch-yourself moment that we’ve been able to do this.”

“My Evil Twin” had a brief premiere in 2019 at the Ko Festival of Performance at Amherst College, but the pandemic canceled a number of planned performances last year. Now the show has been further polished and updated. It plays at the Workroom, the largest performance space at the Community Arts Trust, on Aug. 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 15 at 2 p.m.

The performance is presented by A.P.E.@Hawley. For more information, including COVID-19 protocols, and to purchase tickets ($20), visit apearts.org/ape–hawley.html and click on the A.P.E.@Hawley link.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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