When Steven Jamail was in college at Rice University, the music composition major spent a lot of his spare time writing "really dark historical things," which he says are a tough sell (Phantom of the Opera and Jekyll & Hyde notwithstanding) to modern musical theater companies.
Fellow lyricist and Rice student Ryann Ferguson persuaded him to try something lighter. Three years ago they began a collaboration on a story about a high school election. On September 16 and 17 in three performances, the result of that effort will take stage with a 35-member, all-teen cast at Hobby Center, courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars' Humphreys School of Music.
Vote! A New Musical is the story of three students, Jamail told Art Attack. "During the course of this election, they figure out how much does one vote count ... and they have to learn how to vote for themselves." He got to sit in on a practice the other day.
At first, Jamail said they were going to base their musical on the 1999 movie Election with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, but they eventually decided against that.
"(A) it would have been a whole long process getting the rights, and (B) we just didn't think it had as much heart as we wanted to write and that it wasn't really accessible. It wasn't even appropriate for younger audiences," Jamail said. "So even though our show is about an election, it has absolutely no relation to that movie at all."
Vote! has gone through several rewrites, Jamail said. He now lives in New York City and works full time for Rosie O'Donnell as the music director for her charity and outreach program Rosie's Theatre Kids.
It took Jamail and Ferguson nine months (working around their full-time jobs), to write it -- they co-wrote the lyrics and Ferguson wrote the book.
In the summer of 2009, they took the show to the New York International Fringe Festival -- "probably a little before the show was ready," Jamail said. Reception from most critics was cool, he said, with the exception of The New York Times, who gave them "a really nice plug."
They put the play away for a year, and then about seven months ago, Jamail's good friend Katie Rose Clarke (currently Glinda on Broadway in Wicked; both she and Jamail grew up in Friendswood) asked him to play one of his lighter compositions for her.
He pulled out one of the first songs written for Vote! and they "just kind of started messing around with it," Jamail said. "There were so many changes that I ended up contacting Ryann later that night...and we went back and forth and Katie sang it again, and suddenly, the song needed to be in a different place in the show, and like a house of cards, the whole show came apart and we put it back together. But it made the show, I think, for the first time really work."
Wanting to test their remodeled play away from the mainstream, Ferguson had a production put on in Edinburgh, Scotland. "And I remember the call from her," Jamail said. "'It works, the show really works.'"
They submitted it for consideration to the Humphries School and were selected. (Jamail will also serve as musical director for TUTS's upcoming production of Guys and Dolls).
"There's not a lot of really great theater being written for high school kids that is new and is a little bit edgier. There's a lot of wonderful stuff that colleges are now doing. There's a lot of young writers who are writing great small shows about twentysomethings in New York that are perfect for colleges. There's not a lot that's really right for high schools that's coming out. Stuff either skews too young or inappropriately older," Jamail said.
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"Our dream with this show is not to have it on Broadway, but to eventually license it and market it to high schools," Jamail said. "I get requests all the time for this show to be done in high schools, and it just hasn't quite been ready yet, and I think now it's ready."
Besides the show itself, TUTS invested in making its first-ever original cast recording. "Our whole New York music team prepared all the instrumental tracks and we sent those down here. The kids are singing along with people who play in Broadway pits," Jamail said.
Performances for Vote! A New Musical are at 7:30 p.m. September 16 and 17 and. September 17 at 1:30 p.m. in the Zilkha Theater at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Tickets are available at www.tuts.com or by phone at 713-558-8887. A student matinee performance for school and home-schooled groups is available and may be purchased by calling group sales at 713-558-8888 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Performers in the show (in no particular order) include: Atascosita: Drew Carr and Roderick Green; Carver High School: Maci Bass and Andrew Wesley; Cinco Ranch: Liam Johnson; Clear Springs: Max Bailey; Cooper: Meredith Bechtel; Cy-Fair: Lindsay Sloan; Cy-Woods: Brooke Humphrey; Dawson: Megan McGuff; Episcopal High School: Austin Arizpe, Natalie Flores, Mia Gerachis, and Mason Smajstrla; George Ranch: Sean Hardin; Houston Christian: Haylee Hoelscher; HSPVA: Keenan Hurley, Drew Jones, Matthew Smith, Corwin Stoddard and Christian Warner; Kingwood: Monica Brown and Robert Terry; Klein: Melissa Beaird, Kristen DelBosque and Connor Jones; Lone Star Community College: Ryan Kennedy; Memorial: McCall Montz; Seven Lakes: Carley Nunn and Ragan Richardson; Strake Jesuit: Matt Hawes; The Woodlands: Madie Plum; no affiliation: Rebecca Eckert and Sandra Valles.