The unique collaboration between a Southeast Missouri State University student and faculty member will take center stage when a musical they co-wrote and produced will be part of the Gallery Players’ Overtures Staged Reading Series Dec. 12-13 in Brooklyn, New York.
“An American Hero” is the work of Southeast senior Cody Cole and Dr. Kenneth Stilson, chair of The Conservatory of Theatre and Dance. It tells the embattled story of Thomas, an optimistic Irish immigrant, who joins the U.S. Army, falls in love with and marries Mary, a spirited American woman, before being sent to fight alongside his brother in World War II.
Its selection by the Gallery Players is an amazing accomplishment for Southeast, The Conservatory, Cole and Stilson, said Michael McIntosh, Southeast assistant professor of musical theatre, directing and acting.
“This doesn’t happen on the university level, anywhere,” he said.
The reading series by the oldest Off-Off Broadway Company in New York City helps develop new works.
“Very rarely do you develop a show and bring it to New York,” McIntosh said. “ I can’t think of any other school that has done this.”
When Cole heard The Gallery Players had selected his music, he said he was speechless.
“I was in awe,” he said “That was a smile that you couldn’t wipe off my face for months. I’m still excited for it, because there’s even the possibility I’ll be working with the professional actors.”
Networking with New York writers, composers, lyricists and producers also is a possibility.
“So, it’s fantastic,” he said. “The whole experience is phenomenal.”
The Conservatory will send eight Southeast students and one alumna to participate in the Gallery Players reading in supporting roles. The experience will allow them to have New York and Off-Off Broadway credits on their resumes before graduating, McIntosh said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity our students get to work with professionals in New York,” he said.
Additionally, the students have the opportunity to be a part of a new project and witness theatre being created.
“They get the experience of developing new works,” McIntosh said.
As actors, it’s an exciting process to be a part of a musical or play that hasn’t been written and produced, Stilson said.
The staged reading in New York next week will help Stilson and Cole continue to perfect their work. Their experience with the Gallery Players will help with rewrites over the upcoming months with a plan to have a final draft by March.
Ultimately, “An American Hero” will be The Conservatory’s flagship performance for the 2017-2018 season at Southeast’s River Campus, according to McIntosh.
“We have a show that’s funny, dramatic, charming, scary and a great evening of theater,” he said.
They also would like to have “An American Hero” produced outside of the University, Stilson said.
“Musicals can take a long time, but the ultimate goal is to have it developed and have it professionally staged and produced,” he said.
There’s always the hope for it to be published and picked up at the regional level, he said. Additionally, because the majority of the characters are such a young age it makes it a perfect production for universities across the country, Stilson said.
Cole and Stilson are hoping for a successful production at Southeast next fall.
“It all started from one little song, and now it’s 20 songs and 200 pages,” said Cole, who adds music inspires him whether it’s singing on the stage or listening to the score of his favorite movies. He is drawn to recreate and create.
It was during one of these moments, that he stumbled onto a melody he really liked. When he finished writing the song, he had a vision.
“This really sounds like a song that would be sung in a church pew for a priest that’s about to send off soldiers,” he remembered.
That vision motivated Cole, a musical theatre major, to create more songs and approach McIntosh and Stilson, for help in developing his idea.
Cole’s talent and his idea for the musical’s story intrigued him, Stilson said.
“I was really impressed with his ability to write music. I heard one of his songs and I thought ‘wow, this kid’s got some real talent,’” he said. “The idea was interesting of a young man who falls in love and goes to war, and after the war he’s a different person.”
It started with Stilson writing one scene and together they developed a storyboard, visualizing the musical’s plot along with a strong story, characters and lyrics.
“What ‘An American Hero’ really is about is the things that we don’t want to talk about in World War II” Cole said. “I think a real American hero goes through struggles and it might not be a sparkling ending, but they get better.”
For Cole, the story is more than about the medals or hearing about the happy ending, but about Thomas and Mary as human beings during this turbulent time.
“It’s really about their story and how they struggle through the trying times that occur,” he said. “I also felt it wasn’t just the soldiers that struggled but the people at home that struggled too. Through those struggles, every person can become what is an American hero.”
Stilson, who is a World War II buff, was committed to writing and telling the story of Cole’s vision.
During World War II, Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality and anyone who fought was ostracized. This cultural history added a dynamic element to their main characters and story, Stilson said.
“It’s much more interesting to see how Thomas goes from being this young idealistic Irish immigrant and then he becomes, in the process of the war, a reluctant hero,” he said.
He doesn’t go into the war with bravado or thoughts of heroism, but is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on the worst day of his life, Stilson said. The psychological repercussions of that day and the war for Thomas and Mary are depicted throughout the dialogue and music.
“They come together at the end of the war and they’re the same people but different,” he said . “The musical ends with what you would think is tragic, but it’s really all about that they come back together and there’s hope for the future.”
The writing and composing over two years has been both enjoyable and difficult, Cole said.
“It’s fun, but it’s nerve racking at the same time,” he said, adding he has been inspired at three o’clock in the morning to write and to sit at the piano to compose.
One of his favorite places to work was in St. Vincent’s Commons in the Kenneth and Jeanine Dobbins River Campus Center where he drew inspiration from the talented students around him and the views of the Mississippi River.
“The songs are a character’s thought process,” said Cole, who often had to become each character to tap into how they as a real person would think and react. “They are expressing their inner thoughts and inner feelings.”
Cole explored what would be his own inner dialogue and use that in the script to recognize a powerful, emotional moment and let that song carry his characters to the next scene.
In a musical, it’s a big deal when a character sings because it’s a moment when the words in and of themselves aren’t enough, Stilson said.
“The dialogue is carrying the story from point A to point B, but that’s the same thing the song has to do,” he said. “The difference between dialogue and lyrics is just the mode of expressing it.”
Collaboration is the key to a successful musical with more than one writer. As a playwright, he’s not only telling the story, but creating situations for melodic displays of emotion that fit into the plot.
“We have to work in tandem with each other for it all to work,” Stilson said.
Collaboration is very natural in theatre, but working with another author and student at this level was a new experience for him, he said.
“I’ve never co-written anything before, and I hadn’t collaborated at this level with a student, but I thought this is a really interesting opportunity,” he said. “I knew we had to work as co-creators.”
Although one a student and the other a faculty member, “We were simply two artists collaborating together,” he said.
The thought of working with the head of The Conservatory of Theatre and Dance could be intimidating, Cole said, acknowledging Stilson’s vast experience.
But “he always saw me as an equal in the production,” Cole said. “I really admire that. As somebody in his position, it’s really amazing to see he respects his students that much.”
Working together as equals allowed them to share their creativity and storyboard from each others’ work.
“It turned into a symbiotic relationship on how this story really progressed,” Cole said. “I used his writing to inspire some of the music and he used some of the my music to inspire character development and plot.”
After a year and half of working together, Stilson and Cole were ready to see their work come to life. Staged readings allow them to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their writing.
“It doesn’t matter if it works in our head. But does it work on the stage?” Stilson said.
After two readings at Southeast and nearly 75 drafts, the next real test will be the third reading in New York next week with actors who don’t know either of them or the musical’s history, Stilson said.
Stilson, Cole and McIntosh will be paying close attention to the depictions the Gallery Players choose to bring the characters to life.
“You listen for what is working and what is not working and we’ll use that to help with any rewrites,” Stilson said.
All of it is part of living the dream, Cole says.
“I’m doing what I want to do when I grow up – I’m composing a show. I’ve written a show, and I don’t think I’m ever going to slide back from that. I think I’ve finally done what I wanted to do, and not a lot of 22-year-olds can say that,” he said.