Inspired by real-life events, ‘Small Town Story,’ a musical opening at South Orange Performing Arts Center Thursday, May 31, explores not only the power of theater but also many of the issues facing teens and families today.
Featuring a book and lyrics from Sammy Buck and music and lyrics from Brandon James Gwinn, the show focuses on a Texas community which becomes divided after its high school announces it will perform ‘Rent’ for its annual musical. As parents and children clash over the production’s subject matter, questions arise over what issues teens can handle.
Buck shared with NJNext.com how the idea came about.
“The show was born in a very unique way,” he said. “New York Theatre Barn, a theatre company that nurtures writers and develops new work, wanted to commission an original musical written about a community by a community of writers – with me as the book writer in a collaboration of about 18 songwriters. In 2009 at an early meeting, Artistic Director Joe Barros, said ‘How about that incident last year in Texas?’ He was referring to the cancellation of ‘Rent’ at Rowlett High School near Dallas. I did some research and discovered that incident was not limited to Rowlett. In that year alone it had happened in Costa Mesa, California, Henderson, Nevada and in West Virginia.
“In each case, I realized the issues were often the same: Parents and community leaders were questioning what the students could handle in terms of the subject matter. In some cases, especially in Rowlett, there were religious oppositions.”
Stacey Todd Holt, who portrays parent Larry Ames, explained that he felt a personal connection to this role.
“I connected with Larry at first because he reminds me of my father,” he said. “I’m originally from a very rural town in Georgia and although this musical is set in Texas, there are many similarities socially, culturally, and politically. Larry is a father who wants to provide for his son and protect him from harm through his young adult life.”
Holt also sees the show as extremely topical.
“I think a parent’s biggest desire is for the safety of their child. I look at what is happening with gun violence, the many school shootings and how the youth of today are speaking up and demanding change,” he said.
Equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking, ‘Small Town Story’ asks “Can a show change us?” Buck explained.
“And what does change mean?” he continued. “Does it enlarge our point of view on ‘the other’ and create empathy for an opposing point of view? We started this in 2010, but the question is more relevant today than ever, and we have worked to present all points of view on this issue and, hopefully, have a show that causes an audience, on any side of the aisle, to consider their own biases, where they come from, and then build a bridge to other people with completely different viewpoints.”
In the early years of developing the show, Buck said he wanted this work “to be the kind of show where Michelle Bachmann and Dan Savage could sit next to each other and watch it and at the end hug each other.”
“The second act of the show also gets to some very raw places about parenting, so my other joke was that I wanted to have hotline phones at the side of every seat so people would pick it and call their parents, and call their kids, and say ‘I love you’ and more importantly, ‘I see you. I hear you. I get you.’
“Also, I want them to hum the songs and remember the funny lines and some of the ways we express these serious issues with humor and pathos.”
‘Small Town Story’ runs through Sunday, June 10