With “Surviving the Moonlight,” a musical about love and family in the theater world, Short North Stage co-founder Rick Gore and Broadway songwriter-lyricist David Spangler aim to fulfill a family promise made by Gore decades ago.
Short North Stage will present the world premiere, which opens Friday at the Garden Theatre.
“So many of our lives have been dedicated to this,” said Spangler, an on-and-off Gore collaborator for more than 30 years.
“Rick listens, and he’s really smart…We’ve found we’re a great team…Finding a great collaborator is 90% of success in musical theatre,” Spangler said.
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Rick Gore and Christopher Gore: Sharing a Dream
Broadway composer-lyricist Christopher Gore, Rick’s older brother, planted the seeds for the show.
“I was inspired by his love of musical theatre,” said Rick, author and co-lyricist of the much-reviewed chamber piece.
“The main character in the musical is kind of based on my brother, a larger-than-life personality in theater,” he said.
Although Christopher co-created one of Broadway’s first rock musicals (“Via Galactica”), he is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Fame,” the 1980 musical film about high school students from the New York performing arts.
Eager to resume his Broadway career in the mid-1980s, Christopher began writing songs for a new musical about love and art, originally conceived as a stage version of the 1945 film “Children of Paradise.”
Then he caught AIDS.
Often flying to Los Angeles to visit his ailing brother, Rick would listen to Christopher play eight songs he had written on a synthesizer.
“His songs were beautiful…I told Chris I would do whatever I could to keep his work going,” Rick said.
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Forge a partnership
After Christopher died at age 43 in 1988, Rick didn’t know how to keep his promise.
Even so, Gore and Spangler began working together, first to reimagine Christopher’s Chicago musical “Nefertiti” for the revival and later to encourage musical theater workshops for teens at the Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts, which Spangler founded.
More recently, they have focused on making Christopher’s other unfinished musical.
“David loved the songs, but we didn’t have Chris’ vision of what to do with them…We decided to make our own musical story about the transformative ability of art to change lives,” Gore said.
Decades of development encompassed research, multiple rewrites, and staged readings in Florida, New York, and Columbus.
Gore reinvented the book, based in part on Pierre Loti’s 1879 French novel “Ayziyadé” about a three-way bisexual affair in Turkey, while writing new lyrics with Spangler as he composed eight more songs.
“Characters and story dictate the style of music in each scene,” Spangler said.
Their “very eclectic” score is unusual, Spangler said, embracing rock, reggae, disco, waltz, Turkish songs and Broadway pop “somewhere between Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim”.
The two 2 hour and 15 minute acts follow a family of show biz talent navigating love, loss, betrayal and disagreements in present-day Cleveland while rehearsing “Country of Joy”, a new musical in the Istanbul of the 1870s.
“I love its show business theme and the idea of a game within a game,” said director Michael Licata.
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A frequent director of Short North Stage, Licata began work in 2019 as a work-in-progress playwright/director.
“I loved the music and the charming and funny story of a brother trying to bring his dysfunctional family together to overcome their conflicts and make a new musical theater piece,” Licata said.
“But like a lot of musicals, the second act was the problem… The way its story is resolved makes a very positive statement in 2022 about acceptance, tolerance and non-traditional families,” Licata said.
play the games
Matt Clemens, playing a dual role he’s played since a 2020 Zoom reading, is excited about the musical’s evolution.
“I haven’t heard anything like this very unique show, very different in what it’s become than the show we read on Zoom,” Clemens said.
“It’s now clear how each character feels about each other as they explore different types of relationships and try to understand family members who think differently,” he said.
Clemens plays Peter, brother of Jonathan, a successful musical writer who brought together performers Peter, Peter’s wife Carol, Jonathan’s ex-wife Andrea and ex-lover Vulkan to rehearse “Country of Joy” in Cleveland . (In “Joy,” Peter plays married actor Michael, who meets an attractive man and woman in Turkey.)
“Conflict in his relationship with Jonathan, Peter struggles with who he really is. Working on the show, Peter discovers himself, his bisexuality and how to be a better father,” Clemens said.
Overall, he enjoys “Surviving the Moonlight” the most for its family themes.
“Rick’s passion is palpable. Knowing the story of Rick’s family and how he took on this project makes it even more poignant and meaningful,” Clemens said.
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Actress Meg Frost agreed.
“The musical has so much potential, with its wonderful story about the importance of family. The way it works now, I think it has the potential to be something amazing,” said Frost, involved from a workshop in Florida in 2021.
With a few cuts to the narration and several song changes over the past 18 months, “Surviving the Moonlight” is more focused, Frost said.
Frost plays aspiring actress Jessie, Peter’s 18-year-old daughter, hired as an intern in the Cleveland production.
“Jessie, independent and mature for her age, is trying to learn from Jonathan and make her parents realize that this music is important…and that they could be the stars they once were,” Frost said.
When Jessie and young stage manager Graydon push their elders to update the old-school score, “Country of Joy” becomes a show with more potential — perhaps enough to make Jonathan’s dreams come true.
“The parallels to real life are fascinating…The backstory of making this musical makes the emotions very truthful,” Licata said.
Gore, 76, recognized how the characters’ artistic and personal goals align with his own long family quest.
“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on my part,” he said. “But yes, the musical reflects my own journey to create something new from Christopher’s ashes.”
In one look
Short North Stage will perform “Surviving the Moonlight” at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. June 23-25, and 2 p.m. June 26 at the Garden Theater Main Stage, 1187 N. High St. Tickets are $40 to $55 atCBUSArts Ticket Center (614-469-0939, www.cbusarts.com)