world premiere of a new musical
The exciting world premiere of this dramatic musical, centering on an optimistic Irish immigrant who joins the United States Army and falls in love with and marries a spirited American woman before being sent to fight in World War II, where he becomes the reluctant recipient of the Medal of Honor. Along the way, he learns the depths of his love of family, the sacrifices of heroes and the true meaning of becoming an American.
Book by Kenneth L. Stilson Music & Lyrics by Cody Cole Orchestration by Steven Sensenig
contains adult content and language
September 27 – October 1
2 p.m. Sunday matinée
Discussion with The Conservatory of Theatre & Dance Chair Dr. Kenn Stilson
Tell me how the project came about?
Cody had written an early version of a song that I heard, and I thought “this guy has got a lot of talent.” With the song, he also had an idea about a musical set during WWII about an Irish American soldier suffering from PTSD (called Shell Shock or Battle Fatigue in the 40’s). I thought it was a good idea. We met to discuss possibilities of developing it further. After a couple more meetings, I agreed to write the book, while Cody began writing the lyrics and music. We’re both fascinated with World War II, and his idea and musical abilities worked well with stories and characters I like to write. So it was a nice fit for both of us.
Is it unique for a student and faculty member to collaborate to create an original work?
This is highly unusual at the undergraduate university level. I’ve never collaborated with a student on a project until this (although Cody is now a graduate, he was a student for the first two years of our collaboration).
You hear of students serving as research assistants in the sciences, and I’m sure there have been faculty/graduate student collaborations. However, this is quite rare.
Cody is an exceptional talent, and I feel the entire process has been reciprocal and artistically healthy. I have a lot of respect for him, and I feel he respects my work.
In the end, I think we’re going to have a very good finished production (book, music, and lyrics) that we can market to various professional companies and eventually get it published.
We now have a 3rd member of this artistic collaboration, and that’s Steve Sensenig, who is our orchestrator. Steve is an extraordinarily talented and seasoned professional musician, and his contributions are helping us raise the overall quality of the musical to a new level. Sometimes orchestrators are simply “hired guns,” but Steve is our creative partner. We’re thrilled to have him onboard.
Additionally, Josh Harvey as musical director/musical mentor and Michael McIntosh as the original director have played instrumental roles in the development of this script. It simply wouldn’t be where it is without their contributions.
Finally, Bethan Whitehouse, Cody’s fiancée, has been in charge of musical arrangements since the beginning of this process. Like Cody, she’s a recent musical theatre graduate from our program, and she’s the unsung hero of this entire project. She’s a tremendous talent, who has put in many hundreds of hours on this project.
How long from idea to finish did it take?
We started working on this together in January 2015, so it’s been about 2 ½ years thus far.
It’s still a work-in-progress. We’ll be working on it until it’s published.
What were some of the challenges during the project?
Time. There’s never enough of it.
Also, learning each other’s artistic rhythms and making sure we’re both on the same page when it comes to the story, characters, and style.
Good writing is hard work—extremely hard work. Every thought, every idea, every word or note on the page has resulted from a substantial amount of sweat involved in its creation. In the 2 ½ years we’ve been working on this project thus far, we’ve written dozens upon dozens of different drafts of the music and book, always trying to make it better, more compelling.
The entire process is challenging, and collaboration among artists makes it even more complicated. That’s why this is so unusual.
Describe your reaction when you found out there was going to be a staged reading in NYC.
I was thrilled. Gallery Players is an Off Off Broadway company that has works with shows headed to Off Broadway and Broadway, and they only select a couple of shows each year to help develop. So, that was quite an honor, and working with the professional cast taught us so much about where we need to go with the book and music.
It’s also wildly exciting seeing and hearing the work that originated in your head come to life onstage—nevertheless the New York stage.
We’re really thankful to the provost’s, dean’s, and president’s office for the financial support in sending us to NYC for this opportunity.
Is the production this fall a first for our program?
We’ve done original plays in the past (for example, my script, Murfee’s Law was done a few years ago), but this will be the first original musical we’ve ever produced. So it’s a very special production for everyone.
How will you both feel seeing the work come to life?
Hard to describe. Writing—whether it’s the book or the music—is a solitary act. The characters, story, and music come to life only in your head, which is translated to words and notes on the pages. To see and hear your work interpreted by an entire production team and actors watched by an audience is awesome. It’s humbling and mind-blowing at the same time.
We really think An American Hero will resonate with our audiences. It’s not just for people who love musicals, this story is really universal. It’s about love, courage, patriotism, and the sacrifices we make to ensure the liberties we enjoy. It’s also filled with action, warmth, humor, and hope.
We believe it will appeal to anyone—from teens to members of the Greatest Generation—who loves stories about these things.
I’m very proud of Cody. He’s got such a bright future ahead of him, and he’s engaged to a wonderful collaborator for many future projects.
I really want our audiences to know just how special this production will be, and we hope they will come out in droves to witness the world premiere, the birth of a new musical. It’s a rare opportunity.