Want to Develop a New Musical? Take It To School | American Theatre
Twenty-year-old Amina Faye is onstage, playing Susannah, a teen living in an early 1960s all-girl juvenile hall. Susannah expresses her fears of “two girls going steady,” singing, “I’ll just keep it to myself. Oh, well.”
Peering from behind the glow of his laptop, composer Joe Iconis drums his hands lightly along with the beat. On a Friday evening in February, the cast and crew of Love in Hate Nation, written by Iconis, was in a tech rehearsal just four days before the musical’s opening. The rock musical, which ran from Feb. 13-24 at the university in a fully produced production, was the culmination of the very first project of Penn State’s New Musicals Initiative.
Musical theatre development can be a long and arduous process, taking years and usually requiring more actors and a larger creative team than the typical play. That makes universities, with their almost limitless resource of actors and musicians in training, a natural place for incubation. Penn State’s drama program is one of several that have joined the efforts in developing new works within college walls, while also honing students’ skills in that arena.
Through various models, schools are not only facilitating a practical setting for students to learn how new work develops, but are also contributing to the contemporary body of musicals.
When John Simpkins arrived at Penn State to head the school’s musical theatre program three years ago, he put new-musical development at the top of his agenda. There are certain skills related to the creation of new work that students often are not taught until they enter the professional world, Simpkins says.
“What you have to say to the world, your point of view on any given situation and what you believe in has to lead the way,” said Simpkins during a February interview inside his Penn State office. “When you’re working on Oklahoma! and Carousel and anything else in a college situation, it’s too easy to rely on what that is doing for your skills rather than what that’s doing for what you believe in and what you’ll put forward as your ideas of the world.”
The program begins in the students’ junior year, when they meet a new writer. Although the writer is commissioned by the university to write a brand-new musical for that year’s junior musical theatre class, he or she does not put pen to paper until they meet their cohort in order to create a musical that is appropriate for that class’ student body.
“I don’t like the idea of just grabbing a new work out of the air and trying to plop it on to some college students,” says Simpkins. “They’re playing the wrong age, there’s never the right kind of groupings of people.”
Simpkins’ first pick for a writer was Iconis, who he has worked with for over 15 years since the pair met while studying at New York University. Iconis has written music for the NBC series “Smash,” and is the creator of the musicals Be More Chill and Broadway Bounty Hunter.
The only guideline given by Simpkins to Iconis was to create a work that was appropriate for that cohort of students. Luckily, writing for young people was not a new skill for Iconis. “One of the reasons I love writing young people is that young people have huge emotions and so much going on inside and they don’t always have the vocabulary to express that,” he explains. Too much emotions? Sounds like a great excuse for a song.
Iconis met his students over a picnic in 2016, where he was struck by the makeup of the class: seven women and just two men. He quickly realized that the musical could be a show about women. Years earlier, he had written a song titled “I was a teenage delinquent!” The song, a love song between two girls in a juvenile hall, was a standalone song. But Iconis always thought it could be something bigger.
So he expanded the scenario in that song into a full-length musical, about an interracial romance between two women in the 1960s. In the road from draft to full-length production there were readings, workshops, and a public concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below. A character was cut and others were added, songs were cut and added, and the plot was fleshed out. That meant that students had to learn how to adapt to learning new lines and songs on the fly.
There were also cast changes, when the students Iconis had worked with graduated. It was another lesson for the students: Sometimes you may be on the grounds of a new work, but that doesn’t mean you will follow it to completion.
Mikayla Mckasey, a 20-year-old junior musical theatre major, was one of the cast members of the final production, and she found the process illuminating. The questions that Love in Hate Nation asked about race, gender, and love made her realize that this is the kind of work she wants to create as an artist.
“I feel like I’m actually being an artist,” she said. “I’m actually doing what I really want to do.”
After the success of Iconis, the New Musical Initiatives is continuing apace: Sarah Schlesinger and Mike Reid are writing for the university’s senior class and Kirsten Childs just met the junior class.
The students recently performed some of Schlesigner and Reid’s work at 54 Below. Their musical, titled The Last Day, centers around a group of students in a college musical theatre program. There will be a reading of the piece in April.
Meanwhile, Childs recently dined with Penn State’s junior musical theatre class, picking their brains about what it is like to be a millennial in today’s society. This summer, she will begin to send Simpkins drafts of songs.
“It worked with him,” Simpkins said, gesturing to Iconis. “I think it’s going to work beautifully with the next two and we’ll see where it goes.”
As for Iconis, he has hopes for the future life of Love in Hate Nation. “It’s not a night of songs for these nine college kids that will never be performed again,” he says. “It’s the birth of a new musical that will hopefully go wherever musicals go to fulfill their potential.”