I did plenty of musical theatre when I was young. It was all in my parent’s basement … alone … in front of a mirror.
I memorized whole cast albums and performed them beginning to end. I obsessed over newer (at that time) shows like Annie and Company. But I also had a very soft spot for classics like My Fair Lady, The Pajama Game and anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
I (thankfully) grew up in a corny, showtune-loving family, complete with a family vacation memory of driving through Gary, Indiana while singing “Gary, Indiana” (from The Music Man) at the top of our lungs. Someone once remarked “The Curleys can find a musical reference for just about everything you say.”
During my childhood we didn’t often attend stage productions as a family, but we relished movie musicals. Independently, I longed for the stage due to some sort of powerful magnetic force. I finally joined my junior high school drama club at the end of my 9th grade year and performed a childish piece of dreck as a green alien. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. Not the theatre experience I wanted … and it wasn’t a musical!
I joined the Pit & Balcony Drama Club my first year in high school. The atmosphere, instead of the safe creative haven I sought, was fraught with tension and fear due to a gruff and unnecessarily intense director, who, get ready for it … did not do musicals. Dammit.
I’m fond of saying “I didn’t start performing until I was 38-years old”. That is true for musicals, but I had enough theatre experience in high school to join the International Thespian Society, which required a certain number of hours of theatre experience.
For many years I distracted myself with all manner of debauchery. I disappeared into a world of denial of my own making, which helped me deal with the overwhelming insecurity I felt. I made many (many many many) mistakes and hurt lots of people. For a long time, I thought there was no hope for me and frankly, I didn’t much care.
I began to wake from that long, self-destructive slumber in 1999. I had a yearning to perform, but knew I could not take myself seriously unless I was willing to work for it. I quit smoking and found a voice teacher. I learned how to control my voice so I could sing the theatre music that had always meant so much. I wasn’t sure where it would go, but I plodded on with lessons for a couple years. As 2001 dawned, my teacher started saying things like “You should audition for a show!”. I possessed no confidence about my abilities (and had no theatre resume at all), so I saw no clear path that would lead to the stage. But I wanted it desperately, and I had come to trust my teacher.
I found a photographer and got a headshot … wrote out my first performing resume (which consisted of nothing except my appearances on TV) … and did my first, nerve-jangling auditions. Soon after, I was cast in my first musical, the lovely She Loves Me, where I also met my future husband.
After that I was off and running. Within a couple years I had the opportunity to join the acting union, and I worked professionally on stage for 6 years (meaning I worked under contract, and received health insurance from the union), until I retired in order to start my gender transition. It would be deadly dull to provide a typical stage resume here, but I am including some photos below, and suffice to say I more than fulfilled the showtune-y dreams I dreamed while singing at the mirror in my parent’s basement.
And then, suddenly … I was a playwright!
Well, not so suddenly. It was a long mistake-laden struggle before I reached a place where I felt that title was appropriate.
I met Molly Bell in 2003 when we were both cast in a staged reading of a new musical by Andrew Lippa and Daniel Goldfarb called Jerry Christmas. We were also already set to appear together in the Northern California Premiere of Bat Boy: The Musical to follow a few months later. Over the next few years, Molly and I frequently took part in a number of staged readings (together and separately), witnessing the birth process of new musicals.
If, up until now, you haven’t gathered that I am transgender, I should point it out. I spent my whole life running from that truth, but by the end of 2006, I was finally ready to face the issue once and for all. I knew this meant I would have a hard time keeping the same pace (or any pace) as a performer. At the same time, Molly Bell became pregnant with her first child. For both of us, a new form of creative expression would be necessary. We had talked in the past about writing together, and the time had come to give it a try.
At first, we attempted a stage piece that was sketch comedy … maybe with original music. Among the ideas we batted around was something from Molly about a young woman being molded (à la My Fair Lady) into a Britney Spears-like pop princess. One afternoon I received a call from Molly who said, “I think I have an idea about how that Britney Spears sketch can be an entire musical.”
Ummm … Ok…
I’m older than Molly, and I was only ever peripherally aware of Britney Spears, so I didn’t know anything about her. But, we began discussing the idea, and it became clear we could write, not a biography of the pop star, but an homage to musical theatre itself. Also, the more I learned about the real childhood of Britney, the more sympathy I had for this woman. There was a point to be made, albeit comically, about the plight of talented children who are pushed a little too hard into show business by (possibly) well-meaning but desperate parents. Once we were both on board with the general idea we began the process of creating Becoming Britney.
By June 2007 we had our first full number called “My I Want Song”, which we premiered at Molly’s Divas For Life benefit concert. From there we added to the show until we felt ready to submit it to The New York International Fringe Festival in the spring of 2008.
On May 4th, I returned home to a bulky envelope leaning against my front door. It was an acceptance packet from FringeNYC. We would be having our world premiere in New York City in August. I delivered the news to Molly through tears of shock and happiness, and we made plans to finish up details on the show’s script, songs, video projections, costumes, props, paperwork, posters, website … and on … and on … and on…
If we had known how much work and stress was required for this undertaking, we might have been discouraged from even trying, but our naiveté and determination pushed us hard with all available hands. We lived in NYC for the month of August 2008 in separate sublets in the East Village. Our cast made the herculean effort of relocating themselves to NYC for the month as well. The stress was non-stop and the summer weather was sweltering, but it was quite a feeling to be in NYC with a specific artistic purpose. I had recently lost my dear sister to leukemia (devastating) and I was also very early in my transition so I was not yet comfortable in my own skin (awkward and humiliating). It was a very challenging period in my life, and I don’t think I escaped it without ruining some relationships in the process. But, I did what had to be done … which was a lot!!
We sold out all 5 FringeNYC performances and got some great reviews from the New York press. By September 1st we were back home, attempting to return to some new normal. As far as we were concerned, we were done, and our silly little show went into hibernation as we tended to our daily lives.
We made the commitment, and got to work mounting the West Coast Premiere at Center REP in Walnut Creek, California. This new version of the show came with its own set of hideous obstacles, including a disagreement with Actors’ Equity over the classification of the show. We added material to flesh out character motivations, and dove headlong once again into semmingly impossible craziness.
But in the end, we improved the musical, and once again sold out most performances. We even received a lovely review from Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, among other generous critiques.
The Retro Dome
Another opportunity presented itself when the team at The Retro Dome invited us to present the most fully-realized production to date. This meant we would have an actual set, and more importantly, fully orchestrated backing tracks for the entire score.
Despite a truncated run (due to health issues in the cast) we were thrilled to see this full version come to fruition. At the same time we were completely spent, physically and emotionally. I suffered (presumably) stress-related health problems … Molly had another baby … and once this production was finished, we both closed the iron door and turned our attention toward other, more pressing life issues.
And that’s where we sat for a long time. It was unclear if this show would ever have any future beyond the amazing opportunities we already experienced.
Molly had moved on to create her own musical, a spoof of the Real Housewives TV show. Real Housewives of Walnut Creek premiered in the same black box theatre at Center REP where we had presented version #2 of Becoming Britney. During that process, Molly met another writer/director named Roger Bean. Roger, in addition to writing his own musicals (the most famous of which is The Marvelous Wonderettes), also has a boutique theatrical licensing company called Stage Rights.
Roger offered to include Becoming Britney in the Stage Rights’ catalog, which we are currently implementing. We don’t know what the future holds for our show, this piece of meta/spoof/homage silliness, but it barely matters. It’s already delivered more than I ever hoped for.
It’s been a long, weird, wonderful, frustrating, enlightening, upsetting, miraculous road.
And please … we beg you … consider licensing the show for your own theatre season!!
Robert Hurwitt, San Francisco Chronicle
Greg Archer, Good Times (Santa Cruz)
Kevin Thomas, Examiner.com
Gay City News (NYC)
Clinton Stark, Stark Insider
Karen D’Souza, San Jose Mercury News
Jeanie Forte, Palo Alto Weekly
Christa Martin, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Keith Kreitman, Inside Bay Area
Jeanie Forte, Palo Alto Weekly
Keith Kreitman, San Mateo County Times