Call Redialed: NEW Stephen Cole Interview: "Merman's Apprentice" + "Casper The Friendly Musical"

I first met award-winning musical theatre writer Stephen Cole in 2015/2016 when his show Merman’s Apprentice (with music by David Evans) was making his NYC debut at Birdland. I had so much fun interviewing him then, that I’m thrilled to catch-up with him now.

After recording Merman’s Apprentice on CD, this original musical is getting ready to make its West Coast premiere in September, presented by Sonoma Arts Live, at the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall.

Stephen’s other new musical Casper The Friendly Musical (written with Matthew Martin) will be making its world-premiere at The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati in October.

Merman’s Apprentice takes place in 1970 when the golden age of musical theatre is drawing to an end. But young Muriel Plankenstein of Brooklyn doesn't know that! She runs away from home to become a Broadway star, and, in true Broadway tradition, runs right off the train and into the Queen of Broadway, Ethel Merman. Ethel takes a liking to the kid and takes her to a Hello, Dolly! rehearsal where they sing together... and, you guessed it! Merman takes Muriel under wing, making little Muriel Plankenstein, Merman’s Apprentice. Presented by Sonoma Arts Live, Merman’s Apprentice will play on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall (276 E. Napa St., Sonoma, CA) from September 27-October 13. Click here for tickets!

Casper The Friendly Musical, tells the story of everyone’s favorite friendly ghost. Casper and his three uncles live a rather uneventful existence in the family mansion. Fifty years after their lives were cut short in a lightning storm, Magdalena, their former maid, re-enters their (after)lives! Now a celebrity TV Host, she is looking for the deed to the mansion…not because she wants the house, but because she believes there’s a message on the back that will lead her to a “great treasure”. As competition reality TV is all the rage, she hosts a live treasure hunt in the mansion on Halloween. One lucky young contestant could win $1 million if they find the deed! It is up to young Casper and his new friends, the contestants, to save the mansion from Magdalena, and discover the greatest treasure of all! Director: Roderick Justice. Choreographer: Eric Boyd. Cast to be announced. 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of Casper’s debut, entertaining generations through comics, books, television, film, and now the stage! The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati will present Casper The Friendly Musical from October 12-21 at the Taft Theatre (5th & Sycamore Streets, Cincinnati, OH). Click here for tickets!

For more on Stephen visit https://www.stephencolewriter.org

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1. We first met in 2015/16 when Merman's Apprentice was premiering at Birdland here in NYC. Before we get to the show, let's talk about you for a moment. What has been happening with you in these past 3-4 years? I remember it well, we met in my old apartment in Chelsea and since then I have moved to a larger and quieter place across the river in Jersey City.

Since we last spoke I have done lots of writing. My new musical Goin' Hollywood with composer David Krane (Road to Qatar) has had a NYC reading and is now being developed by the 5th Avenue in Seattle (Fingers crossed. The show is big!) and we also did a first reading of The Black and White Ball (music by Todd Ellison) in that same period and that show is hunting for it's venue.

In the meantime I found a new niche writing short stories (several have been published and one won a big prize) and finished my first novel, entitled Freak Show. It has time travel, coming of age and of course two main characters are Ethel Merman and Mary Martin.

2. Now let's talk Merman's Apprentice which is getting ready for West Coast premiere this September, presented by Sonoma Arts Alive. How has the show evolved since 2015? We were lucky enough to record the Birdland version and the CD has been doing really well. Great reviews and customers have bought it and this got up to Sonoma. We have been working on other productions closer to NYC and those are still in the works.

We have made the show less of a concert (which was a necessity at Birdland) and done some tweaks as one always does, but essentially it's the same musical fable it has always been.

3. What are you looking forward to most about this production? I am so looking forward to seeing it on its feet for the first time, without music stands, without books and WITH costumes and sets and staging. To find out how the show really moves and looks and plays in a small house.

4. Which scene was the hardest part to write? Why did it give you so much trouble? The hardest scenes to write for Merman's Apprentice were ones that seemed to work and then did not when we presented them. Specifically an early scene with Merman and 12 year old Muriel's father, Moe, where Ethel has to convince him to let the star take the little girl under her wing.

We originally had the impulse to make the scene parallel Rose and Herbie in Gypsy where she seduces him into taking over the act with the song "Small World." To that end we wrote a seductive number for Merman called "Nothing is Written in Stone." The scene and song worked fine, but we realized that the audience then had expectations we were not fulfilling: that Ethel and Moe would have a romance of sorts. This turned out to now be something we wanted and so instead of leading them down the wrong path, we rewrote the song and scene and changed Ethel's attitude from one of seduction to one of bulldozing. We had to dual task of writing her a typical Merman number (a showstopper) and making it work for the plot. The song became "Listen to the Trumpet Call" and it convinces Moe to let the plot move forward.

The other instance was the complete lack of scene and song where Muriel actually goes on in the title song of "Hello, Dolly" and convinces us she has the talent we had hoped she did. We had nothing there and just skipped it. Now after being told by the audience (literally in talkbacks) we wrote a whole huge production number that SHOWS Muriel doing Dolly, but we only hear her inner thoughts as the song proceeds. We find out that she is made for the stage and that it is her home. Meanwhile the audience thinks they are actually seeing Muriel triumph as Dolly, but we never sing the song. Clever huh?

5. As a big Ethel Merman fan yourself, what is something you wish you could have learned from her? I wish I could have had more conversations about her personal life and the amazing stars and writers she knew so well. I did get to talk to her so many times, but I was seldom in the reminiscing vein. It was always about now.

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6. Another show you have gearing up for production is Casper The Friendly Musical, will be making its world-premiere at The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati in October. What made you want to write a musical about one of the most famous friendly ghosts? This Casper is a total revision of the Casper I wrote for the great Chita Rivera several years ago and in which she triumphed around the country. This version focuses more on the kids and the ghosts and less on Chita's character, who is still there as the villain, but does not dominate the proceedings. I think we have hit the essence of the story as it now focuses on the kids for the kids.

It originally was a commission and I fought tooth and nail not to do it, but then I found a contemporary way into the story by inventing everyone around Casper and his Uncles and propelling the plot by inventing a reality TV show starring Magdalena (the former Chita character) who invites a group of kids to a haunted mansion on Halloween and tasks them to find the deed to the house. She (who was the maid when Casper was alive) knows there is writing on the back that will lead her to "the greatest treasure of all."

I wound up having a blast writing this funny and ultimately very warm show about kids banding together and becoming friends with a ghost. It also addresses in a subtle way the idea of dying and death.

7. What does this musical have that other Casper stories have not shown us already? My Casper has a backstory. We find out HOW he became a ghost. His parents went away on a skiing trip and left him with his uncles: Stinky, Fatso and Stretch and, as they were on the roof, fixing the antenna (Casper loves to watch TV), a freak lightening storm hits and kills them all.

Casper's parents told him to wait for them and so he never leaves the house for the next 60 years, and no one dares enter...not until this one night of the reality TV show. We also find out that the uncles had wives when a exorcism brings them back from the dead. In fact, nothing but the four ghosts exist in the comic books or cartoons. We are weaving a whole new tale.

8. What was your favorite part of the story to write? Bringing back the aunts. Magdalena tries to rid the house of ghosts by doing an elaborate exorcism number "In the Spirit" that includes a dance to get rid of them. The kids get wind and save Casper and the Uncles by doing a reverse version of the dance. They then inadvertently bring back the Aunts who are minus their feet (don't ask!) and that winds up being a feet finding number where the disembodies feet tap dance. That was fun.

9. In this musical, a live treasure hunt is held to help Casper's former maid find the deed to the mansion she and Casper lived in before his untimely death. If you were to go on a musical theatre treasure hunt, what would you want to find at the end? I would want to find the original color tape of the 1966 TV version of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman. That's brings us full circle, right?

10. If Ethel Merman were to meet Casper the Friendly ghost, what do you think their interaction would be like? Ethel would say, "Hey kid! You look so pale! What'ya dead? Oops! Sorry. Let's call in for Chinese food. But remember, I don't share."

Stephen Cole

Stephen Cole

More on Stephen:

Stephen Cole is an Award-Winning musical theatre writer whose shows have been recorded, published, and produced from New York City to London to the Middle East and Australia and Edinburgh, Scotland. Through his 30-year career, Stephen's book writing/lyricist brilliance, has been seen and heard, in his musicals which include: The Off-Broadway musical AFTER THE FAIR (music by Matthew Martin Ward,) which was also produced in Dallas and London to great acclaim. The NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (music by the late Claibe Richardson) won the prestigious Edward Kleban Award and was produced in San Francisco and NYC and Dallas featuring Davis Gaines, Julie Johnson and a 24- piece orchestra. SATURDAY NIGHT AT GROSSINGER'S (music by the late Claibe Richardson) has had successful runs in Dallas, LA and Florida. Well-known actors, Hal Linden and Dee Hoty, starred in the world premiere of his musical adaptation of DODSWORTH (music by Jeffrey Saver,) and Off Broadway saw the run of the hilarious PIANO BAR at the Triad.

In 2005 Stephen and composer David Krane were commissioned to write the first American musical to premiere in the Middle East and the result was ASPIRE, which was produced in Qatar. Their amazing and hilarious cross-cultural experiences resulted in yet another musical about the creation of the show entitled THE ROAD TO QATAR! which was produced to rave reviews at the Lyric Stage winning Best New Play or Musical from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Drama Critics Forum. In addition, it had a successful Off-Broadway run at the York Theatre Company. "QATER" was presented as part of London's Landor Theatre Page to Stage Festival and the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival garnering five and four star reviews and nominations as Best Music, Lyrics, Book and Best Musical of the Festival. 

TIME AFTER TIME had its world premiere in Feb. 2010 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse under the direction of Gabriel Barre and was subsequently produced in Connecticut under the direction of the late Kevin Gray. Other produced shows include two family musicals commissioned by Walden Media: MERLIN'S APPRENTICE (Music by Matthew Ward) and ROCK ODYSSEY (Music and Lyrics by Billy Straus). ROCK ODYSSEY has just completed an unprecedented ten year run at the Adrienne Arscht Center in Miami.  Stephen conceived/wrote/directed MY HEART BELONGS TO MARY, a celebration of the career of Mary Martin. An Off Broadway expansion of this became INVENTING MARY MARTIN and ran at the York Theater Company; starring Emily Skinner, Jason Graae, Lynne Halliday and Cameron Adams.

Works in progress include THE BLACK AND WHITE BALL (with Todd Ellison), which was been chosen by Chicago's FWD Theatre Project to be their first in a series of developmental musicals and had a sold out concert version in Chicago. GOIN' HOLLYWOOD (with David Krane), a work in the development stage. 

Stephen has written continuity, narration, and special material for twenty different Drama League Shows including all-star tributes to Kander and Ebb, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Terrance McNally, Liz Smith, Peter Stone and most recently Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald. In addition, Stephen has written material for Marlo Thomas, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Christine Baranski, Hal Linden, Chita Rivera, Gavin MacLeod, Dee Hoty, Christine Ebersole, Keith Carradine, JoAnne Worley, Lauren Bacall, Matthew Broderick, Michael Rupert, Joel Grey and many others. 

Besides his published books, including Marni Nixon's memoir I COULD HAVE SUNG ALL NIGHT (in development as a feature film) and THAT BOOK ABOUT THAT GIRL, Stephen's recently won First Prize from Hickory Stump Magazine for his short story "Sisters Through a Window" and had another of his stories, "Over the Hill" featured in their summer issue.

Stephen is also the recipient of a Gilman -Gonzales Falla Commendation for musical theatre. Stephen was also named one of Variety's 50 Creatives to Watch - 2000. New work in progress: a  musical version of Stephen's short story LIP SERVICE entitled AIN'T IT THE TRUTH (music by David Evans).

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