On one night in mid-February, I watched a production of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s song cycle “Edges” at Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House, then rushed over to the Power Center’s rehearsal room to observe a run-through of a U-M senior’s original musical, titled “Shel.”
I couldn’t shake the sense that the pairing was more than a coincidence.
Why? Because songwriting super-duo and U-M musical theater grads Pasek and Paul (’06) – who have recently won Oscars (“La La Land”), Tonys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), Golden Globes (“The Greatest Showman”), and Grammys (“Dear Evan Hansen”) – wrote and premiered “Edges,” their first major artistic collaboration, at KCH while they were students in Ann Arbor. Noah Kieserman’s “Shel: A Historically Fictionalized Musical,” meanwhile, staged as an independent production at the U-M’s Duderstadt Center on February 22-23, offered several lucky locals (who snapped up every ticket available) first crack at seeing yet another musical, also starring U-M students, being born.
Opportunities like this are unique to an area that’s both relatively small, compared to urban centers, and far removed from the theater world’s capitol, New York City. But they stem in large part from U-M’s musical theater department being consistently ranked among the top programs in the country, so that many of the most promising young theater talents out there find their way to U-M.
This is how Benj (from Pennsylvania) met Justin (from Connecticut).
As for Kieserman, he hails from Maryland. His friend and fellow musical theater student Alex Sherwin (from Georgia) got him thinking about crafting songs inspired by children’s poet Shel Silverstein when the two, during their freshman year, considered creating a stage musical adaptation of “The Giving Tree.” Though that project failed to take root (so to speak), Kieserman quickly grew captivated by Silverstein’s eclectic life as a Korean War soldier, Hugh Hefner’s best friend, a songwriter (“The Unicorn” and “A Boy Named Sue” are both his), a survivor of personal tragedies, and a beloved, bestselling children’s writer.
There are gaps in Silverstein’s biography – the poet, who tended to keep his private life private died of a heart attack in 1999, at age 68 – so Kieserman attempts to fill in some of the blanks by way of his show-in-verse.
Which is to say, Kieserman tells “Shel”’s story through distinctive, spirited rhymes that mimic the iconic author’s style. Yet the author’s over-the-top audio readings of his own poems, which many of us grew up hearing, provide only one piece of a complicated puzzle.
“We’ve talked a lot, inside the project, … about this idea of the true self and the adjusted self,” said Kieserman. “(Silverstein) has this persona that’s more emblematic of the public figure we feel like we all know as Shel Silverstein, which plays well with children as a poet and writer. It seems like a little of that bled into his personal life, though, so that’s something we’re exploring. If that’s the adjusted version of himself, then it comes to almost be like a defense mechanism in his personal life. I think that that delivery he had (when reading his work) has a lot to do with the ambiguous soul he was. It seems like nobody really knew who Shel Silverstein was at his core.”
Kieserman and “Shel” both benefitted from a two week workshop in Washington, D.C. last summer, during which time a group of high school students performed readings and a few semi-staged scenes. For “Shel”’s fully-staged world premiere production in Ann Arbor, though, “Shel” not only has the advantages that come with professional-grade, Broadway-ready performers (including Kieserman himself in the lead role), but also top-notch student talent working behind-the-scenes.
“I got involved with the show this past July,” said student producer Thomas Laub, a U-M musical theater junior who’s also studying business and performing arts management. “ … I called Noah one night from my apartment in New York to ask about producing ‘Shel’ on campus, and he told me that he was planning on calling me the next day for the same reason. … After discussing the production concept with Noah and our wonderful production manager, Martjin Appelo, I created a budget and established the level of funding we needed to accomplish what we needed to accomplish what we were setting out to do.”
Laub applied for several local grants, invested money of his own, sold thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets, and submitted an entry to a songwriting contest entry (the song won); he also pulled together a production team of almost twenty students, including a choreographer, music director, stage manager, and costume designer.
So this is a far cry from kids throwing together a half-baked show on-the-cheap.
No, for U-M’s musical theater students, the chance to develop and produce a new theatrical work on campus is more akin to an out-of-town tryout (the town in question being, of course, New York, where Kieserman hopes to take “Shel” next).
“I think this is the best place to do this,” said Kieserman. “I’ve talked about this a lot, but it’s true. Here, all you have to do is ask. We did, and we got several things for free, and all this support, and I’m so grateful for that. In the real world, all these things cost so much more money.”
“Stay tuned,” said Laub. “We will debrief about next steps after the show, but exciting things are in the works. The show has a future ahead of it, and we’re excited to keep driving it forward.”