Jonatha Brooke remembers the moment when the idea to stage her first musical was born. It was the same moment she realized how much she didn't want her mother to die.
Brooke, best known for her major-label debut "10 Cent Wings" (MCA) and a string of well-received independent, folk-leaning pop albums, was at a songwriters retreat in California, taking a rare break from the care of her mother, the poet and Christian Science Monitor columnist Darren Stone Nelson, who was suffering from dementia.
Her mother's health had turned for the worse just as Brooke was scheduled to go on the retreat that had been set months earlier. She decided to make the trip, in part, because her mother encouraged her to go. Brooke went, but her thoughts were with her mother.
"I felt like a soggy piñata," Brooke says of the moment in her one-woman musical "My Mother Has 4 Noses," which recently opened at The Duke on 42nd theater. "I think I was in some sort of shock. I tried to keep it together."
In her Manhattan apartment a few days before the show opened, Brooke plays the song "Time" that she wrote on that retreat, giving extra emphasis to its chorus "Time, please don't come today ... Tomorrow's not good either 'cause I know it'll mean forever."
"I saw it all when I was writing that song," Brooke says later. "I saw what it would look like performing it onstage -- the lighting, everything."
With the opening of "My Mother Has 4 Noses," the vision of that song -- and all the joy and pain that goes with it -- comes to life almost exactly as Brooke imagined it.
"To do it the way I imagined it would be impossible," she says. "We'd need a much more powerful spotlight than we could use in the theater and so many smoke machines that I'd end up inhaling so much smoke that I'd probably gag and die. We're about as close as we can get realistically."
Brooke's entire performance of "My Mother Has 4 Noses" feels that way. She tells the specifics of her mother's battle with dementia in hopes that others will see something universal about life and dealing with death in its details.
"It was about the balance of comedy and darkness," she says. "To find that balance was challenging."
Brooke says her mother encouraged her to take notes about their time together, asking her, "Are you getting this down?" After her mother's death in 2012, Brooke says it took her nearly a year to write the show, ending up with nearly four hours of material.
Brooke says she started out by performing the show to pillows on the bed before she would try it out on her husband, Patrick Rains, who became the show's producer.
"He was a huge help in the winnowing-down process," she says. "He was constantly driving me to the point and giving me hope."
The idea that her experience could give others dealing with the long-term illness of a loved one some comfort was what kept Brooke going. She admits she still gets emotional performing it, even now that she's doing it seven times a week.
"The other day, I got caught up emotionally as I was reading her second poem, 'My Dreams Do Not Despair,'" she says. "I just didn't see it coming. I realized how poignant it was, and I had to focus on performing again."
At a recent performance, sniffling in the audience during the second act was audible, but so was laughter. Brooke says revisiting her mother's life and death hasn't upset her. "I don't feel drained by it," she says. "I feel this incredible intensity of support from the audience.... They are along for the ride and there's this catharsis and recognition from them. It gives them the permission to laugh at the darkest things, which they should. Parts of this are just so freaking weird."
Though Brooke still keeps a foot in the pop world -- even collaborating with Katy Perry on a song for Perry's "Prism" album -- she's eager to see where "My Mother Has 4 Noses" will lead.
"This feels like such an overwhelming, beautiful arrival," she says. "It's like everything I've ever done has led to this. My dance training, my songwriting, inhabiting a persona in my music -- all of that training informs all of this storytelling."
"I never could've seen this coming," she adds. "But maybe that's what makes it the most satisfying. It's important to me and this may be a way to reach more people than we ever could have hoped."
SINGERS WHO WRITE SHOWS
As Tony-winning Cyndi Lauper has shown with the smash "Kinky Boots," the theater can be the perfect creative outlet for a singer-songwriter such as Jonatha Brooke. Here's a look at some others who are taking the leap:
DUNCAN SHEIK The "Barely Breathing" singer-songwriter became a Tony-winning composer with "Spring Awakening" and has two new musicals in the Broadway pipeline -- "American Psycho," which recently opened in London, and
"Because of Winn Dixie," which opened at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
STING Once he wraps up his current arena tour with Paul Simon, Sting will turn his focus to open "The Last Ship," his musical about his hometown, in Chicago in July, before moving it to Broadway in the fall.
JOHN MELLENCAMP The "Jack and Diane" singer's musical, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a collaboration with Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett, toured America last fall and is still expected to head to Broadway at some point.
TORI AMOS The "Crucify" singer-songwriter wrote the music and lyrics for the dark fairy tale "The Light Princess" that opened in London last fall and may cross over to Broadway this year.
WHAT "My Mother Has 4 Noses"
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 4, The Duke on 42nd, 229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan
INFO $55-$75; 646-223- 3010, dukeon42.org.