CEDAR CITY — Audience members who attend the world premiere of Great Expectations: A New Musical likely are unaware that the production they are seeing has taken over a decade to reach the stage. Twelve years ago, Margaret Hoorneman was a retired high school English teacher in Iowa who had “tired of the usual retirement activities,” as she says, and began adapting the text of Charles Dickens’s classic book for the stage. Hoorneman had taught Great Expectations to ninth graders and consistently noticed the connection that her students felt with Pip, the novel’s main character.
So, how does a script from a Midwestern school teacher end up on the stage of the Utah Shakespearean Festival? Hoorneman’s grandson, Brian VanDerWilt (who also shares a book credit with Steve Lozier) enlisted composer Richard Winzeler and lyricist Steve Lane to provide songs for Pip, Miss Havisham, and the other characters from the novel. Although newcomers to the world of musical theatre, the songwriting team is very successful in their own right, having written songs for Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Terry Steele, and other singers.
With a script and a CD of songs, the creative team then searched for a director. In 2006, they found Los Angeles-based Jules Aaron, who had previously shepherded new musicals like Broads, Among Many Others, When Garbo Talks, I Only Have Eyes for You, and Better Than Beethoven to the stage. When recounting the first time he listened to the music in his car, Aaron said, “Within the first five minutes, I said, ‘I love this show. It is a beautiful show.’ About an hour and a half later, I knew my initial instincts were right. Then I read the script and thought the adaptation was good.”
After a few workshop productions, the powers that be at the Utah Shakespearean Festival received a call inviting them to see a 2008 workshop production. “The thing that impressed me was that at intermission I was humming [the title song] ‘Great Expectations.’ I thought if I can hum a song at intermission, there’s something in that show that we need to consider seriously. At the end of it, I was very, very moved. I thought it had so much potential,” said Fred Adams, Utah Shakespearean Festival founder.
However, even after the Utah Shakespearean Festival agreed to produce Great Expectations, the creators’ work wasn’t done. Songs and scenes were written, discarded, or rewritten. And the changes kept coming until the twenty minutes before the opening performance on July 9.
In spite of the stress and hard work of creating a new musical, the process has not been without its rewards. “You have so much more freedom to allow the material to dictate what the song should be [in the theatre]. It was a great feeling to know that there were no restrictions,” Winzeler said.
Lane agreed, saying, “Writing a pop song, the words have to be two syllables or less.” Lane also appreciated the opportunity to explore psychology through lyrics. “I think that there’s a lot of interesting psychological moments,” he told UTBA. “I call it ‘Pip’s 12 Step Program,’ or his group therapy. . . . Dickens was very ahead of his time when he when he was approaching nurture versus nature. Was Estella born this way or could Miss Havisham actually make her this way for the rest of her life? . . . That’s something I find fascinating.”
Ellen Crawford told UTBA, “I love playing Miss Havisham, because I get to play the entire arc of this very bizarre, wonderful character, so that you understand the vulnerability from which Miss Havisham began, into the vengeful person, into the redemptive person that hopefully she moves to. To play that kind of arc is fantastic.”
Now that Great Expectations has been fully produced on stage, what’s next for this show? The creators are open about their hopes to take the play to the West End or Broadway. They also know that it won’t be easy: fundraising, rewrites, and a possibly an album are all challenges that lie ahead for the creative team. But for the time being, they have a production that they are proud of. Hoorneman—the woman who started it all 12 years ago—said, “I’m pleased with the results.” Hopefully, the audience is, too.
Great Expectations: A New Musical plays at the Randal L. Jones Theater on the campus of Southern Utah University at the Utah Shakespearean Festival through August 28th at 2 or 8 PM. For exact show dates see the Utah Shakespearean Festival web site. Tickets range from $29 to $68. Click here to read UTBA’s review.