Andrew Abrams only had to wait two decades for this dream to come true.
Abrams, the artistic director of Capital City Theatre, wrote the music for “But I’m a Cheerleader!”, an original musical co-written with Bill Augustine, in 2002. The show is based on a 1999 cult film about a teenage cheerleader (played by Natasha Lyonne) who embraces her sexuality and finds love after her parents force her into a conversion therapy camp. After a seemingly endless series of fits and starts, Abrams and Augustine’s musical is due to receive its first professional staging at the end of February, at the Turbine Theater in London’s Battersea station.
“I loved the story,” says Abrams, who first saw the movie a few years after high school. “But over the years I’ve had to wonder if the world is too progressive now to be okay with that? It’s a show about people being sent to a straight camp.
Over the past few years, the cultural and political pendulums have swung again, as LBTQ+ representation and rights have become hot issues across the country. “We took a step back, and it’s relevant again,” Abrams says.
The musical has always enjoyed popular support. It won Best of Festival at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2005, but problems negotiating production rights kept it stranded in development for years. Other stagings – at a workshop in Georgia in 2011, a 2013 reading in London – resonated with audiences but failed to generate enough momentum to take the show to the next level. ‘next step. Still, Abrams persisted.
“We did the show at a festival in London in 2020, and the reaction was really positive,” says Abrams. “The high school and college girls felt they had a story they could connect to. It made them feel better about themselves.
This positive reception was the latest boost to propel the show towards full production – which, understandably, was again slowed by pandemic and live performance issues, which delayed the opening three times. . Assuming there are no more COVID-19 related delays, it should finally open on February 18 and run through mid-April. If the show finds success at the Turbine, it could end up moving to a West End theater and touring across the UK.
The London debut was stripped of its original cast of 20. This version features a dozen actors, many of whom are doubles: the main character’s mother, for example, doubles as a drag queen later in the series.
Abram wrote the music for the show and Augustin wrote the lyrics. Abrams is particularly proud of the song “Wrestling”, a song about a character’s struggle to be themselves.
“It doesn’t convey the plot, but it’s the heart of the show,” says Abrams.
Abrams’ professional career now centers on musical theatre, but he has always been primarily a musician. He majored in voice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and originally planned to become an opera singer. While in college, he founded the Middleton Players Theatre, a community theater program. He considers those summers spent conducting musical performances at MPT as a kind of on-the-job training experience.
It was not until he moved to New York that he embarked on a career direction. “I was kind of like, whatever comes to me first: musical theater or opera,” he recalls. The latter won: He landed a gig as assistant bandleader for the nationally touring production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
While in New York, Abrams applied to the BMI Musical Theater Writing Workshop program, where he learned the ins and outs of writing a show and produced the first draft of “But I ‘m a Cheerleader!” He also taught, conducted music, and performed as a means of understanding musical theater repertoire.
Abrams had wanted to start a professional theater company in Madison since the 2000s, but it wasn’t until Gail Becker, the current chief executive of Capital City, approached him about becoming artistic director of a new company in 2014 that he realized the time had come. Capital City debuted in 2015 with a production of “Violet” at UW-Madison’s Music Hall and is currently in the middle of its sixth season. Abrams says that, thanks to strong donor support, the company is in better financial shape than it was before the pandemic hit.
Abrams flew to London this week to oversee the final preparation for opening night of “But I’m a Cheerleader!”. Upon his return, he’ll turn his attention to Capital City’s next production, “Natasha, Peter and the Great Comet of 1812,” a show based on (what else?) Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Abrams calls it “the most expansive thing we’ve ever done.”
The show features an element of audience immersion – actors will move and sing among audience members – and it is staged at Four Winds Farm in Fitchburg instead of a traditional theater space. The place presents its own set of challenges.
“We have to bring it all in ourselves,” says Abrams. “How can we make sure the sound is working? »
“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” opens June 3 at the Capital City Theater in Madison.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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