A trio of close friends who bonded over Frank Sinatra impersonations in class vowed to create a musical — at some point in the very distant future. After an unexpected opening at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, they had to shorten that timetable dramatically. The resulting product, “Gibson Fleck,” will premiere this weekend at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
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“We’ve always had this creative energy, so we’re always entertaining ridiculous possibilities,” said MT&D senior A.J. Holmes, who most recently played Tateh in the University’s production of “Ragtime.”
Last winter, after hearing that the School of MT&D was looking for a new original musical to produce this fall, Holmes, along with MT&D senior Carlos Valdes and MT&D junior Ali Gordon, jumped on the opportunity without trepidation. Less than a year later, and after a series of theatric twists and tumbles, their show “Gibson Fleck” is the first full staging of a musical written by current undergrads to be produced by the school.
“The stars just aligned, and instead of keeping it as a distant fantasy in the back of our minds, we said, ‘Let’s make this a reality,’ ” said Valdes, who wrote the music and lyrics for the musical adaptation of “Trafford Tanzi,” and collaborated with Holmes on Team StarKid’s “Me and My Dick”.
“Gibson Fleck” is about a young man’s search for a family and a home after being abandoned as a baby and inheriting his birth mother’s belongings years later. But the story premiering tonight is entirely different from the play submitted to the School on July 21.
“A gem of an idea,” according to Holmes, was all that the team of writers had when the School was looking for an original musical last winter. Nevertheless, they asked the faculty if the School would produce a play about an orphaned boy looking for a home, providing they wrote it over the summer.
For past original productions, the School has always turned to established professional playwrights, some of whom have been University alumni. But this was the first time current students had pitched an original musical to the school.
“We knew full and well that nothing like that had ever been done before, that it was crazy, but we were audacious and hopeful enough,” Valdes said.
They met with Linda Goodrich, an associate professor in the school, who enthusiastically supported the project and wanted to direct it in the fall.
“This is very unique in that we felt confident about the maturity of the writers, that they’re incredibly gifted way beyond their years,” Goodrich said.
MT&D Chair Brent Wagner challenged them to write the play and score first, and then pitch it to the School on July 21.
“He kind of flipped our logic and said, ‘No, if you write it, then maybe we’ll do it,’ ” said Holmes, who had previously worked with Valdes to write the music and lyrics for “Me and My Dick.”
At the beginning of May, the group created a board full of sticky notes with story details and song ideas. They wanted to flesh out each character to tell a rich story.
“We spent countless nights in Mason Hall charting the characters’ trials and tribulations on graphs — incredibly silly,” Holmes said.
“There were loose wires” in the show, Valdes said, and once they proposed it to the school, they realized they would have to completely revamp it. Advice all around was to simplify — and dramatically so.
“I thought it was best to push the story to the best it could be rather than just settle on what it was,” Goodrich said.
Just a day after the pitch, the group eliminated characters, cut songs and slashed dialogue until they were back at the prologue. It was a painful prospect.
“It was very depressing because we had spent from May all the way to July 22 creating this story … and now we were scrapping 90 percent of it,” Valdes said.
“I woke up the next day, and I looked at the script and realized that two pages of the original 98 could remain in some way in the show, and it was the first time that I just cried, just cried,” said Gordon, who recently performed in “See Rock City” and “Me and My Dick.”
With the school’s website promoting “Gibson Fleck, a new musical” auditions on Sept. 2, and the play premiering Nov. 18, they had no choice but to rewrite.
Gordon had planned to go home to New York City in August, but the process had to move forward even though she wasn’t in Ann Arbor. Goodrich, who had been giving the team feedback since May, jumped in to guide the work. Holmes and Valdes spent countless late nights at Goodrich’s house Skyping with Gordon in New York as everyone teetered on the edge of falling asleep.
Goodrich, who has ample experience directing new plays and who had continually advised them, quickly became an indispensable member of the team.
“She’s been a fourth writer for the show, honestly, just conceiving it in a new sort of way and making it take off,” Holmes said.
Through the sleepless process of rewriting and with Goodrich’s help, the themes of the musical became clear. The mother-son relationship and the theme of searching for a home, which had been integral from the beginning, became more important than ever. The writers cut extraneous themes, and others emerged organically.
They also held onto their emphasis on storytelling — which they learned straight from animation mogul Pixar.
“Throughout the summer we held Pixar as like this huge beacon of light in storytelling,” Valdes said. “We always asked ourselves, ‘How would Pixar tell this story?’ ”
The dual background in acting and theatrical literary analysis that the writers acquired as musical theater majors was crucial during the process of creating the musical.
“You’ve got to look to the masters to decide where you want to go next,” Gordon said.
The two music writers, Holmes and Valdes, had gained confidence from writing the music and lyrics for “Me and My Dick.”
“The plays have different tones, but rules for good writing and dramatically situated songs are the same,” Holmes said.
The team has gotten extraordinary feedback on the final play and is ecstatic about the cast. The writers didn’t create characters with performers in the department in mind, but the two main leads, Will Burton (Gibson Fleck) and Holly Grossman (Gibson’s mother) are both MT&D seniors like Valdes and Holmes. Also, Valdes and Burton went to the same performing arts high school in Georgia.
“Their lead (role) gets to be in a show that their friends are writing and crafting with them,” Holmes said of Burton and Grossman. “They get to make their marks on these roles before anyone else does, and they get to make a really good mark, because they’re doing some incredible work.”
Burton, who will be on stage for almost the entire two-hour-plus show, emphasized that it’s exciting to work on an original play because the actors have freedom to interpret and create the character without preconceived notions.
Though he was a bit anxious when he first heard that fellow students wrote the play, the material quickly won him over.
“One we started working on it, it was amazing,” Burton said. “I was so impressed by the writing, and the music is very, very good, and very dramatically sound.”
Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the group said the project has been better than they could have imagined. All three of the writers plan to keep acting and writing, and they hope to do more projects together in the future after graduating. Valdes is already churning out concrete plans, but Gordon and Holmes need a break first.
“The idea of working on another show and getting emotionally invested in your characters is obviously incredibly exciting,” Gordon said. “But, honestly, my greatest ambition right now is to sleep a little bit. And it’s going to take until after the show opens to get to that place.”