SCARBOROUGH – You know her best as “The Marden’s Lady,” that eerily cheery Maineah who extols the virtues of discount merchandise in a long-running series of TV ads, but Karmo Sanders has another calling – as a Broadway playwright.

On Wednesday, the Scarborough resident left the state along with her husband and musical collaborator, Jerry Sanders, to stage the first production of a full-length musical 11 years in the making.

Of course, as is typical of any new entry to the footlights, the show will run off-Broadway. Really off-Broadway.

“Oh, my goodness, it’s about as far off Broadway as you can get,” Sanders said last week, with a laugh. “It’s in Alaska. Now, how’s that for off-Broadway?”

The term “off-Broadway” actually refers not to theater location, but to pay scales mandated in contracts negotiated with Actors Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors and associated craft workers. Still, Sanders notes, when the curtain goes up on “Gold Rush Girls” July 27 for a six-week run at Cyrano’s Theater in Anchorage, the company will be a non-Equity crew, meaning the show really is off-off-off-Broadway.

But that’s OK, and Alaska is the perfect place to launch the show, says Sanders. After all, “Gold Rush Girls” is set in a Yukon dance hall during the Klondike gold rush of the late-1890s, with a ragtime rhythm penned by Jerry Sanders.

For both halves of the Sanders & Sanders team, the first full production of their musical – following Equity workshop readings in 2007 with Boston Playwrights at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown, Mass., and 2008 at St. Lawrence for the Arts in Portland – is the culmination of a joint effort that has consumed the last decade of their lives.

“Oh, it’s certainly been a passion,” said Karmo Sanders. “There’s no way we could have stayed working on this for so long if we weren’t just deadly passionate about it.”

The show is inspired by the 1999 book “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: A Secret History of the Far North,” by Lael Morgan. A sometime Maine resident and journalism professor, Morgan researched her book through a period of 30 years, starting while a cub reporter in Juneau and finishing as an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The book was published while she was in Maine, working as editor of Portland’s now-defunct alternative newspaper, the Casco Bay Weekly.

The book tells the true story of the hot-blooded, hard-drinking men of the Alaskan frontier and the women – primarily prostitutes and dance hall girls – who loved them, or tolerated them, or, in a few cases, got rich off them. Sanders, a longtime friend of Morgan’s, fell in love with the book right away.

“I saw the picture of those women on the front cover and I just thought, Oh, my God, I know those girlfriends,” said Sanders. “They were the entrepreneurs of that century, they lived a hard life and were not treated very well, being women on the frontier, but, a lot of the times, they were the ones bankrolling the men.”

At the time, Sanders was working on a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University – a program she was invited to join despite the lack of an undergraduate degree, based on “life experience.”

A Norway native and graduate of Oxford Hills High School – she adopts her Birdie Googins persona and gets gloriously non-specific when asked for a commencement date that might provide a clue to her age – Sanders spent one semester in college, where she met her future husband, an Oklahoma native. The couple bounced around through the ’70s and ’80s, raising two children, acting and playing music, with sojourns in Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Kentucky, along with Maine and other places.

By the ’90s, the couple was working with writing partner Steve Underwood producing and performing “Spellbound,” a musical aimed at youngsters and staged at the Brunswick Theater Project, and Radical Radio, an original musical they toured up and down the East Coast for four years. On the latter show, “We almost made a living,” Sanders joked.

While her husband was working on a theater series, “Make a Little More Noise,” commissioned by the Portland Concert Association, Sanders wrote a full-length comedy, “Humpin’ Glory Bay,” produced by the Boston Playwrights Theater in 2000.

While at BU on the strength of that resume, Sanders came home one day from class having written a scene based on “Good Time Girls.” When she walked through the door, her husband was working on a completely unrelated song that would become the musical’s signature love theme.

“I had this scene in my hand and I was like, wow, I love that song. That’s so this, let’s write a musical,” recalled Sanders.

That burst of inspiration led to a lot more work than Sanders initially anticipated, as scenes and songs alike were written, massaged, adapted, discarded, and recycled.

“It was a real education, being introduced to the ragtime era and the beginnings of jazz, and trying to mix in some Native American influences,” said Jerry Sanders, a largely self-taught musician. “I have to say, it’s been a glorious time, with creativity just flowing constantly.”

Through a series of four Boston Playwrights readings directed by Sanders’ BU professor, Kate Snodgrass, the couple learned how to move the plot through song, how to massage lines that sounded better on paper then when actually preformed, and how to let go of sections they’d labored over that simply refused to work.

“It’s been a long time,” said Karmo Sanders. “It’s really been a steep learning curve.

“They say the art of writing is rewriting, but I don’t think that’s very funny,” she said, with a laugh. “I mean, every six months there’d be a new draft. We walked fire, but finally came out with a form that would hold.”

The show includes 14 characters and takes place through the course of single day. In it, a vengeful prospector turned businessman tries to sabotage the dance hall run by a former lover by taking control of her whiskey supply and arranging the death of her new love. Meanwhile, the dance-hall girls are haunted by the spirit of a Tlingit Indian girl killed early in the show.

“Not a lot of characters live to the closing number,” said Sanders. “But the final line – ‘this moment we hold is the purest of gold’ – is what it all comes down to.”

That line, said Sanders, reflects that theme, about cherishing the present, despite hardships and in the face of dangerous ambition.

The exciting thing, the couple said, is finally having a chance to work through an actual production after so many workshop sessions. Even given the quality of the actors who have performed readings, who offered invaluable input, it’ll take a live show with an audience to work out the remaining kinks, said Sanders.

“I’m as good with it as I’m going to get right now,” she says. “Lael just moved back to Alaska from Saco and tells me the opening will be a gala that everyone in Alaska but Sarah Palin will attend.”

After Alaska, they hope, will be a production at a Maine or New England regional Equity theater, possibly as soon as next year, folding in what they’ve learned from the Alaskan stand. That run, they hope, will catch the interest of some summer resident with Broadway connections.

“Hey,” Sanders said, “who knows, you gotta shoot the moon. Broadway has always been the goal.”

Jerry and Karmo Sanders are journeying from Scarborough to Anchorage, Alaska, to attend the July 27 world premiere of their musical, “Gold Rush Girls.” The show, based on a book about prostitutes and dance-hall girls in turn-of-the-century Alaska, is the result of more than a decade of work by the couple. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.