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 the preparation for publication, creates a lot of stuff! Boxing up these remnants…is a nostalgic journey.
I walked into my office, which looked somewhat like“The Wreck of the Hesperus,” to begin a dreaded task…long overdue. 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’s it! Everything else can be boxed up. All the scraps of paper, sticky notes, piles of old scripts, scratched up music sheets, set mock-ups, news articles, letters, e-mails, CD’s, photos, everything else protruding from drawers and openings and spewing across my desk, keyboard, and every other surface including the floor…can now be boxed up and stored until forgotten. But, something totally 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 around when the sun broke through the clouds; producing a spectacular rainbow. I thought about: pots ‘o gold, little green guys, and four-leaf clovers, when 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 that needs a bit of sunshine. Okay, what? For several years, something has been bothering me. I have seen the homeless sleeping on the DC Metro ventilating grates in the winter. I’ve seen them in the various museums and public places. I’ve seen them going through trash cans scrounging for a morsel to eat. I have also 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, and Egypt and cities throughout the world. It is universal. Unfortunately, for too many it is a daily way of life. We have all seen them; however, we look the other way for we don’t want to see this side of humanity. So what am 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? What a lonely, miserable existence…or is it?
This question 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. Okay…I already had the title song. Then came another song: Once, We Had Tomorrow…then another: Street People, then: When Someone Sees. Little ideas came and went.
Our only son, Jerome, moved to Barcelona, Spain from NYC. That’s a long distance, leaving a feeling of helplessness to concerned parents. Then, the night before opening night of a musical production in which I was a featured performer, I did what everyone said to do, I broke my leg, not once, but twice…the femur, amplified by a large dose of feeling stupid, and six cracked ribs on my left side. This forced me to lie in bed for nearly four months. So, out came the laptop and the story of Cordy Shelburne began. A year later, I had a three-act musical of approximately three hours, and lots of beautiful and fun songs. I was enthusiastic and 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 (four) which added greatly to their coffers. They flat out refused to do the show…180 º out from what I had anticipated, and wouldn’t tell me why. This was a real kick in my gut.
Concurrently, my mother-in-law, who was living with us died and, typically, a family trauma about “who gets what” unfolded. Neither my wife nor I wanted anything except for the whole affair to be over. 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. It worked!
One major obstacle had been finding a musical arranger. I had worked previously with a musical genius, Ron Pronk, on A Bag Full Of Miracles but he was no longer available. I interviewed many “arrangers,” 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,(M.M.E.) and 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 at last hear my music and to meet the characters that have been a major part of my life for so long. I cut a lot from the script leaving the musical score and just enough dialogue to tell the story. 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 at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel 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, who 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 a real foot tapper entitled Building New Dreams, the changes have been made and what happens next remains to be seen; however, I believe there is…Sometimes A Rainbow.