by Tom Northam (ASCAP)
Spending the better part of eight years on an idea, then writing a story and script, composing, arranging, and recording the music, directing and producing the musical, then preparing for publication is a long process! Boxing up these remnants is a nostalgic journey.
I walked into my office to begin a dreaded task. I sat surrounded by mountains of stuff, staring at a forty-three page script, a printed musical score, a CD of the recorded music, and a marketing brochure, neatly stacked on one little cleared spot in my cluttered office. That was it; everything else could be boxed up. All the scraps of paper, sticky notes, old scripts, scratched up music sheets, news articles, letters, photos, everything else protruding from drawers and spewing across my desk could be boxed up and stored until forgotten. But then something unanticipated hit me. There are things that cannot be put into a box: the memories of the journey and the people and events that have been a part of my life over the past eight years.
It was a gloomy day, and although I was elated to learn that I had just received a national award for A Bag Full Of Miracles, the cloudy day was attempting to take hold of my mood. I sat at my piano and began doodling when the sun broke through the clouds, producing a spectacular rainbow. A simple melody began to evolve, followed by words… which rarely happens. I wrote it all down, entitled it Sometimes A Rainbow, and gave it to a friend saying, “Here, see what you can do with this.” She later sang it at the end of a funeral service, prompting the pastor to tell the congregation: “I was going to give a benediction, but she just did… Amen.”
That was inspiration enough to begin an unchartered journey. I needed to write another musical about something with a bit of sunshine. For several years, something had been bothering me. I had seen the homeless sleeping on the DC Metro ventilation grates in the winter. I’d seen them going through trash cans scrounging for a morsel to eat. I had seen them doing the same things in Pershing Square in Los Angeles and Times Square in New York City. I’ve seen them in Calcutta, India, Egypt, and cities throughout the world. Unfortunately, for too many, it is a daily way of life. We have all seen them, but we often look the other way because we don’t want to see this side of humanity. So what was I going to do about it? Write a musical? Why would anyone want to see something about the homeless and downtrodden? How does one garner humor from human tragedy? How does one arrive at this station in life?
These questions, coupled with a vivid imagination, became the genesis of my story. I have always heard that “…into each life a little rain must fall.” Yes, we all have had rainy days, but at some point, it stops and often the sun will produce something really beautiful: a rainbow. I already had the title song. Then came another song: Once, We Had Tomorrow. Then another: Street People. Then: When Someone Sees.
The night before opening night of a musical production in which I was performing, I did what everyone said to do: I broke my leg. Not once, but twice. The femur and six cracked ribs on my left side. This forced me to lie in bed for nearly four months. Out came the laptop and the story of Cordy Shelburne began. A year later, I had a three-act musical. I was full of excitement and presented it to our local theatre group. I had worked closely with them for many years, appearing in productions and writing and composing several musicals but they refused to do the show and wouldn’t tell me why. This was a real kick in my gut.
At the same time, my mother-in-law, who was living with us, passed away, and a family trauma about “who gets what” unfolded. Greed is not pretty. All-in-all, it wasn’t a happy time. A friend offered some sage advice: “… go where you are celebrated… not tolerated.” This began a series of trips to both Europe and within the US. I began to look for, and find, long-term diversions to avoid continuing the journey I knew had to be completed. I had written the lead role, Cordy Shelburne, for a fine actress and dear friend, Louise Fletcher. One day, a couple of years later, she approached me in the grocery store asking: “Do think they’ll let me out of the nursing home to do the role?” It was a lovely way to kick me in the butt to get busy once again.
One major obstacle had been finding a musical arranger. I interviewed many, but none had what I was seeking. While expressing my frustration to a friend and fellow musician, he said: “I can do that.” I had forgotten he had a Masters in Music Education and was a former band and orchestra leader. Thus, a wonderful and fruitful relationship began with Dale E. Wise and the music flowed.
Several months ago, I was asked to produce a musical program for our church’s regular concert series. I was thrilled for my hometown to hear my music and to meet the characters that had been a part of my life for so long. We were in rehearsals when I was asked to present the program to the Association of Theatre In Higher Education (ATHE) at their annual conference in Washington, DC. We had only one hour and thirty minutes to do so. After turn-away crowds and thrilled audiences during the concerts, we did a reprise in a lack-luster environment for ATHE. Among attendees were some top-flight professional theatre people. One, a Broadway and Las Vegas production advisor, spent nearly an hour with me critiquing the show. “Your musical score is awesome, but needs an upbeat closing number,” she said. “You mean rearrange the music?” I replied. “No, you’re good… write another one.” She went on to say, “… you have a good show; however, it needs a couple of changes to make it a great show.” The new closing number is entitled Building New Dreams. The changes have been made and what happens next remains to be seen; however, I still believe there is… Sometimes A Rainbow.