Richard Seff, Greg Anthony, Roger Anderson, and Peter Flynn on polishing their musical SHINE! for NYMF
Many of our readers know Richard Seff as the columnist of ‘NY Theatre Buzz’ here on DC Theatre Scene, but what many of you don’t know is that Richard Seff is a playwright, and, in the case of SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical , a book writer of a musical.
I have had the honor of knowing Richard Seff for several years and most of our conversations have always led to talking about fulfilling one of his dreams – mounting a full production of SHINE! on a New York stage. And now as his dream is about to come true on October 7th when Shine! opens at Theater at St. Clements, in NYC.
I asked Richard, orchestrator Greg Anthony, composer Roger Anderson, and director Peter Flynn to talk about their involvement in the show, and how the show has evolved into what audiences will see beginning October 7th.
Richard Seff (Book)
Joel: What is SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical about?
Richard: SHINE! is about the America we lost and hope to find again, the one in which every American had the opportunity, with hard work and application and a dollop or two of luck, to pursue his or her dream. Remember, we’re only promised the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to happiness itself, but that right is a big one. That’s what SHINE! is really about.
Joel: Why is it so important for you to mount this production of SHINE!?
Richard: Its theme is close to my heart. I love musicals, and this is one I’d like to see! I’m proud that America discovered musical comedy and gave it as a form to the world. It’s moving in new directions, but it’s always done that and I believe there’s room for everything from rock ‘n roll to operetta. The only criterion should be that they are well crafted, entertaining, surprising and if possible, even good for the soul.
Joel: Your musical is based on works by Horatio Alger, and presented at NYMF. Who was Horatio Alger, and what is NYMF?
Richard: Alger was a small city minister who came to New York and decided to write about the street urchins that were all over the lower part of Manhattan in the mid-19th century. His books appealed primarily to first generation American teenagers, many of them crediting him with giving them inspiration and hope. My job was to dimensionalize his characters and to come up with a plot that was stageable but fun to follow. Most of his heroes were either jumping into rivers or falling under horses and would not best be served live on stage.
NYMF is a non-profit organization created in 2004 for the purpose of exposing new musicals to the public, and to the vast army of regional, stock, amateur and New York companies and managements whose audiences like musicals. It’s sort of the Frankfort Book Fair for Musicals.
Joel: Tell us why you wanted to write SHINE!? What attracted you the material?
Richard: I’ve always wanted to write a musical, because I love them, and I wanted to go through the entire process with one of my own. I don’t know if I’d do another, because the book writer is the tale end of the dog, and no one pays the slightest attention to him. Everyone to whom it’s exposed thinks he can write, so lots of suggestions are made about the script, but very few feel they can compose, so the score is given lots of attention, and a large staff (conductor, arranger, orchestrator, assistant conductor, instrumentalists) whilst I struggle on alone. My Mother told me she’d read a lot of Alger as a young girl, and what she had to say intrigued me. I began to read about him, and his characters were vivid and, in the case of Ragged Dick whose story was the subject of the first best seller Alger had, more than vivid – charismatic! He’s an iconic Alger hero, and I liked him. I felt connected to him, and I knew I’d like to spend time with him. (I didn’t think it would be 30 years, but, hey, we’re still good friends). I was fortunate to find a composer in Roger Anderson who felt as keenly as I did about Alger’s world. This musical has been our long gestating child, and we are delighted it’s going to appear in a New York production at last, courtesy of NYMF.
Joel: How long did it take you to write the book?
Richard: The writing went smoothly. Within a year, it was complete with book, music, and lyrics in submittable shape.
Joel: Take us on the journey from first writing the book and then having NYMF sponsor this new production.
Richard: Joel, we’d be here until 2012 if I were to take you through the entire journey, but here it is:
20th Century Fox optioned it for Broadway, and hired Henry Guettel (father of Adam Guettel – Tony Award-winning composer of The Light in the Piazza) to be the line producer. We worked together for some ten months, hired a director, choreographer, costume and set designers, and were about to start casting when Fox was sold to Marvin Davis, whose first act was to declare that he wasn’t interested in theatre, only in film, and all options were dropped.
We were back to Square One. But our Broadway assistant conductor was working at the Virginia Museum Theatre in Richmond, he recommended the show to the artistic director, who went for it in a big way and offered to open his new season with it. This was in 1983, and we thought: “Why not?” It was a useful experience. Some fine people were brought in from New York to appear in it. George Lee Andrews, who’s been in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway ever since it opened, played one lead, and Alix Korey, who’s since been in half a dozen New York musicals, played another. There was some local casting that wasn’t right, but the run was invaluable in showing us what worked, what didn’t.
We made many changes in score and script, but when our month’s run ended, we were all busy on other projects (I was acting a lot in the early 1980s, much of it at Circle Rep, some of it on and off Broadway) and the reshaped material remained on hold until The York Theatre offered us a staged reading with a fine cast in 1998. Zach Braff, Chris Fitzgerald (A Tony nominee this year for playing Og in the revival of Finian’s Rainbow) and Laura Benanti (Tony Award winner for playing Louise in the revival of Gypsy with Patti LuPone), graced that cast, but it didn’t quite all jell. In 2001 the NYMFT (the group that preceded NYMF) awarded us the top prize among 150 musicals submitted, and we did another series of staged readings, this time with a top Broadway cast. It led to Samuel French publishing the script and score, and Original Cast Records recording the cast album.
Fade out to now – when NYMF offered us a fully staged production (no more readings), and here we are.
Joel: What are your favorite scenes in the show, the easiest and most difficult scenes for you to write?
Richard: I think my favorite scene in book is the one in which Dick Hunter and his stepfather Luke Gerrish present their different views on how life must be led. Another favorite is the coffee saloon scene in which Dick and Foswell bamboozle Wall Street bucks into thinking they are prominent investors.
The easiest scene to write may well have been the one in which Mrs. Mooney interviews Dick to see if he’d make a suitable boarder in her house. That one’s remained virtually intact through about 6 rewrites of the book. But to be truthful, once I unearthed all the secrets of the rather complicated plot, once I found my “McGuffin” and how to use it, the play came pouring out of my then -word processor, later my computer. I always knew where it was going, and it was great fun figuring out how to get it there. I had help — from dear friend Richard Altman, a director, who hounded me on plot details, and from Roger Anderson, whose ideas for musical numbers often led to writing, or re-writing scenes to accommodate them. No, the writing came easy. It was the waiting that’s been hard.
Joel: What changes are you making to the book for the NYMF production?
Richard: I’ve pruned it, re-arranged some of it, cut one character just to simplify it a bit, but the basic story – the beginning, middle, and end have remained the same through all versions. With the little exposure it’s had to audiences, they seem happy with what it says to them.
Joel: Tell us about the new orchestrations for SHINE!.
Richard: I’m not very musically literate (hell, I don’t know a diminished seventh from a piccolo), so I can’t be very bright about that. That you’d have to get from Roger Anderson, the composer, or Greg Anthony, our bright young orchestrator/arranger.
(I took Richard’s advice, so look below).
Joel: Tell us about the difficult job of casting for this new production of SHINE!.
Richard: Casting was indeed difficult because our director, our musical supervisor and on occasion, our casting director, were all out of town! But the magic of video tapes and recordings and YouTube and Google helped us to pick what I think is the most perfect cast. We spent days looking at boys for four of the central roles, and we feel blessed with the four we discovered. For the adult roles, availabilities for our complicated schedule which covers over a month of time for rehearsals and performances, proved difficult. But someone up there was looking after us, for right up to and through the Labor Day weekend, we were able to set everyone, with not a compromise in the carload. We feel the wind at our back as far as the cast is concerned. You will hear more of Andy Mientus, Michael Halling, Meggie Cansler, Philip Chaffin, Kathy McGrath, Dan Lawler. I wish I had room to go on, but there are 19 of them, so you’ll have to take my word, then judge for yourself. I have every confidence you’ll agree.
Joel: Why do you think this production of SHINE! will appeal to new generations of theatergoers and fans of Horatio Alger?
Richard: I truly do think this, because its themes are universal. The period (1876) only affects clothing, scenery, attitudes and some language. But the feelings these characters express, or repress, are totally identifiable to a young audience. In fact it’s always been the young that have most responded to the show. After all, its hero is a 17 year-old who turns his world around. And I do believe you root for him, because you want him to accomplish that. But it’s a rough road he travels, and I think folks will enjoy accompanying him.
Joel: What has been the greatest challenge for you in mounting this new production?
Richard: Casting was arduous, but productive. Oddly enough, financing it was less difficult. We’ve been delighted by the support we’ve been shown by friends and professional colleagues who share our belief in the show.
Joel: What do you hope theatregoers will take with them after seeing this new-and-improved production of SHINE!?
Richard: First of all, I hope they take with them the memory of a swell evening in the theatre. I won’t mind a bit if they find a quote or two in it. And certainly I’d love to hear them leave the theatre humming a tune, for we’ve got a number of dillies. And when they get home, maybe even the next day, I’d hope they reflect on Dick Hunter (the hero’s) attitudes and actions, they might just find something there that’s useful in their own lives. Better yet, I’d love them to have had such a good time that they decide to go back again, this time with a friend or relative. I’d love that.
Joel: While getting this show in order this week with the changes you made, did it remind you of any shows you have worked on or represented in the past?
Richard: I was never involved with a new musical before. I did a re-write on a book to a musical once, but I spent most of my time at rehearsal with the choreographer and dancers because I wasn’t happy with my book or in the way it was being staged. I was right. We left the show in Washington after 4 performances. Not pleasant. This time it all seems healthy. Everyone talks to everyone and everyone listens as well, The changes that have come from rehearsal have been excellent, and totally collaborative. That usually means a good director is present. It certainly does in this case. And suggestions come from everyone, but he fields them. I’ve worked with directors who were divisive, and that usually spells doom. We also have a very strong musical department, and again – they respect each other so though there are disagreements, out of that friction comes a better show and harmony reigns once again.
Joel: Today you began rehearsals for SHINE! How do you feel?
Richard: I dropped in on the first day of rehearsal for SHINE! today, met the cast and crew, and watched, in awe, the very first read-through of the script and score. The cast knew the entire score after about 4 short days of rehearsal. I was thrilled by that. My book was stumbled through (they’d just gotten it that day or the day before), but the entire company looked right, and accomplished miracles for the writers, of which I am but one. When the reading was over, we trimmed at least 15 minutes of fat from the book and score. I wish I could lose weight that quickly and effectively. I can’t wait to get back tomorrow to watch these gifted people give flight to my words and the music and lyrics of my collaborators.
Somebody must have been listening at the door, because I noticed sales rising for each of the six scheduled performances when I got home, so if you’re debating whether or not to come up to see us, buy the tickets now and debate later because we only have 140 seats a night for six shows. Step right up folks, come on along and listen to – well, you know what! SHINE! is one show I will recuse myself from reviewing for DC Theatre Scene in case you were wondering .. … because I already love it so.
Greg Anthony (Orchestrations)
Joel: How did you get involved in writing the new orchestrations for SHINE!?
Greg: I came to know Roger Anderson as orchestrator for his show, Abe. He introduced me to Richard at the time, and Richard asked me my opinion about SHINE!. I had suggested to him that if he wanted to rejuvenate the project, he should consider making some demos of the show’s music with new arrangements and a live orchestra. I had thought the original demos did a disservice to the show, sounding amateur (and canned.) Roger and Richard came to me after the show was picked by NYMF.
Joel: What is your process of writing these orchestrations?
Greg: My process is two-fold. I’m also rearranging much of the score (along with Roger.) This takes a lot of time and prep. I’ve been working on it for a few months now. Not sure if I know exactly what arranging is – but it means I’m redoing a piano/vocal score of the show, incorporating key changes, incidental music, vocal arrangements, etc. The actual orchestration of the show (or any show for that matter) doesn’t happen until the songs are arranged. Now that we’re in rehearsal and things are getting set, I’m in the process of orchestrating. I’m about half-way done.
Joel: How would you describer Roger’s score for SHINE!?
Greg: SHINE! is an old-school musical. SHINE! doesn’t try to reinvent the musical by stretching what the art-form does.SHINE! takes all of the conventions of the traditional Broadway musical and sets out to do everything extremely well. It’s like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, or Hello Dolly. It is a very rare thing to have a new old-style Broadway musical. Folks these days don’t know how to write them. The score has actual tunes in it. And they’re catchy. It’s the antitheses of Next To Normal or American Idiot.
Joel: What was the most difficult song to orchestrate?
Greg: “Yes!” It’s the big number in Act 2 for our lead Richard Hunter. Musically, it’s the most sophisticated number in the show. It’s extremely dramatic. I had already done an orchestration for “Yes!” that was for 16 players, and at that time, I felt like I needed 30. And now to do something so dramatic with 2 pianos, violin, and cello – it required a little rethinking. In the end, I think it’s going to be quite good, especially with Andy Mientus as Dick. He’s fantastic!
Joel: What is your favorite song in the show?
Greg: Hard question. I admit that for the last few months there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not humming a tune from the show. They’re all very catchy. I suppose the song I’m caught humming the most is “Put Your Money In.” Not sure why.
Joel: What has been the reaction of book writer Dick Seff and composer Roger Anderson, and lyricist Lee Goldsmith to your new orchestrations?
Greg: Well, only Roger has been privy to seeing actual printed scores that I’ve done. It won’t be played by live players until a few days before the first performance. I won’t lie. He simply cannot wait to hear these things played. As for Richard and Lee, I think they’ll really enjoy the new sophistication I think the orchestrations will bring. With two REAL pianos, a violinist, a cellist – AND they play percussion stuff and live on stage- they’ll love it!
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing SHINE!?
Greg: I’d like them to walk away with a renewed appreciation for the art-form that is the Broadway musical. It is a rare thing to have something new that adheres to the conventions set forth by the likes of Lerner and Loewe, Jerry Herman, and John Kander.
Listen to excerpts of Greg Anthony’s new orchestrations for the NYMF production of SHINE: “Overture – A City Awakens”, “Partners” – performed by Stanley Bahorek and Aaron Simon Gross, and “Yes!” – sung by Stanley Bahorek here.
Roger Anderson (Composer)
Joel: How would you describe your score of SHINE!?
Roger: I don’t mind that it’s thought of as ‘traditional’ – strong on melodic invention and craft. In fact, Rodgers & Hammerstein was once the publisher of “SHINE!!” – a unique honor at the time, and we were proud to be invited into that musical family. Richard Rodgers and John Kander remain my prime inspiration in musical theatre. And now with Greg Anthony’s genius, the score has a fresh sound, full of musical surprises, nods to classical and musical theatre tradition. But in the end, I hope it’s described as entertaining and satisfying to all audiences.
Joel: How did you prepare to write the score for SHINE!?
Roger: “SHINE!!’ was my first attempt at a real musical. I was headed to Germany to study opera in my 20s, but met Richard Seff through a friend and found myself soon after in a Doubleday bookstore scanning through “Ragged Dick”. It seemed irresistible. Not quite Dickens – something very American. I wanted to be a part of that. So I wrote a few songs with my own lyrics first, the lyrics were terrible by the way, so wonderful Lee Goldsmith came into the project. From there, it was simply the joy of setting his lyrics to music. Character and form- he taught me about both. I used my classical background, and perhaps was too ambitious with that first version of the score.
Joel: What changes to the score did you make for the NYMF production?
Roger: Exactly that. I rethought my ambition with the music. I had written other shows since, and I came back to “SHINE!‘ with less reason to prove myself as a ‘real’ composer. Yes, we restored material from the Broadway-bound version and cut two or three major songs for secondary characters. But mainly, I brought things back to the melodic invention, the simplicity of what I hope I do best. And then enters Greg Anthony. I understand now the quiet power of such sometimes secret and uncredited collaboration with other theatre composers. I know that “SHINE!‘ would still be on the proverbial shelf without Greg’s participation last year and now supervising the NYMF premiere.
Joel: Is lyricist Lee Goldsmith involved in the NYMF production?
Roger: Oh goodness, YES! Lee reminds me daily that character dictates everything musical. From Bach to Boch. You need that when you are tempted to re-invent or ‘impress’ with just the notes. He brings me back to the basics of our work together; the ‘conversation’ of his particular style of lyrics with the audience.
Lee has made several modifications and different choices in several songs to tell the story a bit faster, or better at times, and added a few new touches for sheer fun.
Joel: Why is this a good time to mount a new production of SHINE!?
Roger: If we have done the job properly, the show reminds of us a timeless and vital notion in this country: Anyone can achieve anything, with hard work, strong character, the right choices, and honestly, a bit of luck. That’s Horatio Alger in all his perhaps simplistic and controversial glory. That’s why he was media king in his day and that simple idea is so attractive and always relevant. If you look back on his day, it has been described as a golden time, “when a lowly bootblack could rise to nose-bleeding heights.” We don’t think anything has changed in America, but it’s nice to be reminded, even in a musical.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after they see SHINE! at NYMF?
Roger: “Wasn’t that fun!?” would be nice to hear. And just maybe the feeling that American musical theatre is “still going strong” – to paraphrase a lyric in the show.
Read Roger’s reflections on the NYMF production – “Shine Take 3”, and his comments on three selections from the show with Greg Anthony’s new orchestrations: “Overture – A City Awakens”, “Partners” – performed by Stanley Bahorek and Aaron Simon Gross, and “Yes!” – sung by Stanley Bahorek, which you can listen to and read the lyrics here.
Listen here to selections below from the complete cast recording of the National Music Theatre Network’s staged workshop in New York City, directed by Peter Flynn (who is returning to direct this NYMF production). The company includes Jeremiah Miller, James Celentano, Daniel Frank Kelley, Tim Ewing, Harvey Evans, Bill Buell, Brooks Ashmanskas, J. Brandon Savage, Andrea Burns (In The Heights), Matt Shepard, Carole Shelley (Wicked and Billy Elliot, Rose McGuire, Wynne Anders, Francine Lobis, Marguerite Shannon, Tim Howard, Tim Salamandyk, and John Summerford. You can purchase the CD for $9.99 (what a deal!) here.
Peter Flynn (Director)
Joel: You directed SHINE! in 2001.What has changed in this new NYMF production?
Peter: The book has undergone a thorough revision: clarifying the story and upping the stakes for Dick. I believe this version to have both more tension and more humor. Also, some of the songs have been re-conceived as well as much of the underscoring.
Joel: How do you think the new orchestrations by Greg Anthony add to this new production?
Peter: The orchestrations are quite beautiful. Greg Anthony has done a remarkable job illuminating the music of the period while maintaining the vitality from today’s musical theatre. There’s also a simplicity that, I think, speaks to the ingenuity in Alger’s story – make something out of nothing and make it good. Greg’s been thoroughly successful in this.
Joel: How differently are you approaching the staging now as opposed to when the show was just a reading?
Peter: Well, this production will have staging! The 2001 reading had no staging aside from actors standing up at their chairs. Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have designed a very useful, minimal set that shifts gracefully from scene to scene – again, using the “something out of nothing” Alger philosophy that there is just enough to tell the story, and invite the audience to use their imaginations.
Joel: Introduce us to the cast of SHINE!
Peter: The cast is a terrific variety of new talent and well-known pros. The show has all these wonderful archetypes of hero, villain, comic foil, ingénue and we have found a great ensemble to play them. The actors in SHINE! come with a great sense of humor, musicality, a sense of adventure and collaboration, and a willingness to be brave and make bold choices, and that’s what this story needs, performers willing to tell a melodrama with truth and panache. We are very fortunate to have this group assemble on one show.
Joel: What has it been like working on this project with Richard Seff?
Peter: Working with Richard is one of my favorite experiences of my lifetime. Not only has he done just about every job in this business, he’s incredibly gracious and generous with his knowledge. When we sit down to work, the show gets better and I get smarter. He’s one of our most beloved gentlemen of the theatre.
Joel: He’s one of my favorite people too. What do you want audiences to take with them after they see SHINE!?
Peter: I hope audiences have a good time at SHINE! – period. It’s a story of people seeing what’s possible, having a little faith, and being brave enough to act. If folks get some of that: great. My wish is that everyone comes in, enjoys the story, the songs, and feels better at the end.
Peter is the Artistic Director of Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. Check out their season here.
SHINE! plays at the New York Musical Festival (‘NYMF’) at Theater at St. Clements – 423 West 46th Street, in New York City. Performance dates are Thursday, Oct 7th, 2010 at 8:00 pm; Saturday, Oct 9th, 2010 at 5:00 pm; Monday, Oct 11th, 2010 at 9:00 pm; Friday, Oct 15th, 2010 at 1:00 pm; Saturday, Oct 16th, 2010 at 9:00 pm; and Sunday, Oct 17th, 2010 at 3:00 pm. Purchase your tickets here.