Team Establishes Roots for New Musical
"Birds and Beansprouts" dates back to Joe Young’s first year at CMU
By Heidi Opdyke
Creating a new musical is a years-long process, and some Broadway shows like John-Michael Tebelak’s “Godspell” and Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin,” which originated at Carnegie Mellon University, begin life as student projects.
A team of recently graduated and current Carnegie Mellon students hope the musical “Birds and Beansprouts” will follow a similar path.
Joe Young started writing the show during his first year at CMU. “Birds and Beansprouts” is an homage to his home state of Oregon and follows the story of Shaylee, an adopted girl ready to begin college as a songwriter. Shaylee is named for and loosely based on a close friend of Young’s, and the story draws from Young’s experiences as an adopted child.
“There are a lot of stories about adoption from the adoptive parents’ perspective or the birth parent’s perspective, but not the child’s,” said Young, who is based in Bend, Oregon. “It’s something that I wanted to explore — what it meant to not know where you come from. I realized certain things about the way people who are adopted grow up.”
Nancy Galbraith is a professor and chair of composition at CMU’s School of Music. She advised Young on his musical as well as his studies.
“I could see from the time that Joe was a first-year student that he was passionate about music theater,” Galbraith said. “He’s disciplined and very talented.”
Emma Cordray and Ella Rosenblum started working with Young on the show during their sophomore years. Cordray serves as the show’s director, and Rosenblum as its producer. Before the trio graduated this spring, they assembled a team to develop Young’s story during the summer. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they worked remotely from 13 states and held rehearsals, recording sessions and production discussions over Zoom.
Rosenblum, who works as an associate producer for Deep Local in Pittsburgh, handled much of the logistics and scheduling to make sure the team stayed on track.
“It’s a job that’s delicate,” she said of budgeting time and production funds. She also stepped in and assisted on the creative side, often giving dramaturgical notes and helping shape the story. “It really depends on what we’re doing as to what role I play. I can shift from being an extreme creative to a communication liaison.”
This summer, their developmental work was sponsored by the College of Fine Arts through the Ronald Zdrojkowski Dean’s Discretionary Fund in CFA and the School of Drama. Dan Martin, who stepped down as CFA dean on July 31, was an advocate and supporter of the team’s work.
“One of my great joys while serving as dean was experiencing the truly remarkable creativity and indefatigable passion of CFA arts, design and architecture students and providing resources to many of them,” Martin said. “‘Birds and Beansprouts’ was one of several projects that emerged over the last couple of years. There’s something in the DNA of this place that inspires these collaborations which you do not find in many other arts colleges.”
“It was a large team for this kind of virtual undertaking,” said Cordray, who recently headed to Spain for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. “CFA and the School of Drama are the reason that this was able to happen this summer. We received enough money to get backdrops and equipment, pay people to work on the show, cover shipping and more.”
The School of Drama also loaned the team some equipment, while other items were purchased. Actors were sent ring lights and microphones along with many cables and other equipment to record sections of their work.
In Joe Young's "Birds and Beansprouts," Biola Obatolu plays Shaylee, a high school student preparing to go to college.
“Birds and Beansprouts” begins with Shaylee working on her college application and follows her journey during her senior year of high school. Biola Obatolu, a junior studying acting, plays Shaylee.
“This was the first time I worked on a show in development. I learned a lot about how to read new music and create an original and authentic sound,” Obatolu said. “The music is so beautiful, and the message of community and resilience really drew me in.”
The show touches on mental health and anxiety but aims to leave audience members with a sense of warmth at the end. Junior Betsy Miller plays Camden, Shaylee’s best friend, who helps her through difficult times. Miller rehearsed from her parents’ home in Bay City, Michigan.
“I learned so many new skills while working on this production. Being across the country did not hinder any sense of community we built as part of the show,” Miller said. “Joe’s piece is incredible and to be a part of it is just so humbling.”
Miranda Boodheshwar, a senior in costume design, created looks for each of the characters. She said that being virtual didn’t change the early design work for the show.
“The more complicated things like fittings and dressing actors are very difficult when they are all in different states, but luckily we haven’t reached that stage of things yet in the process. By the time we do, hopefully, we will all be in person,” Boodheshwar said.
She focused on designing the looks to reflect the abundance of nature surrounding the characters in Oregon.
Biola Obatolu and Betsy Miller perform a scene and the song "Ok With That."
At the end of August, the team released a 70-minute video, called a workshare, that showcases the musical’s progress and highlights 11 of the songs as well as design, costume and staging concepts.
“It’s hard to say in new musical development what numbers will stay in the show as it continues to grow and change. For the workshare, we focused on what we currently feel are the ‘tentpole songs’ for this current draft,” Cordray said. “We’ve learned throughout our multiyear process not to rush things so as to protect the integrity of the story. We want to make sure we can make the piece as strong as it can possibly be.”
The team also wanted to make the musical production process transparent for high school students who might want to learn more about what it takes to bring a show to stage.
“We hope this pulls back the curtain on how a musical is developed. When we were first getting started, we found a lack of transparency around and resources available about the multistep and lengthy process of development,” Cordray said.
Meanwhile, the show will go on.
“At this moment with COVID-19 impacting our ability to gather, we’re learning not to take anything for granted — being together in person included,” Cordray said. “This summer was a gift even through logistical hurdles, and we just can’t wait to hear the full show in person with a full cast soon. That’ll be a very special and emotional moment.”
The team is working on applications for festivals, workshops and potential residencies for Young to focus on rewrites and further solidifying the story. Cordray and Rosenblum also are developing additional shows with other collaborators.
“Emma and I have developed a partnership because of this show,” Rosenblum said. “This is the first baby, but it’s not the last.”