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Bringing AT HOME IN MITFORD to Life as a Musical

Bringing AT HOME IN MITFORD to Life as a Musical

AT HOME IN MITFORD, a new musical based on the popular novel by Jan Karon, will receive a one night only concert reading October 26 at 7:30 pm. Its part of The Academy for New Musical Theatre's reading series at The Colony Theatre in Burbank. Written by Cynthia Ferrell (book), Carl Johnson (music) and Chana Wise (lyrics), it tells the story of Father Tim, a cherished small-town rector, and the quirky group of people that live in the town of Mitford, NC. Elise Dewsberry directs and Darin Goulet is musical director.

Featured in the cast are David Holmes as Father Tim, Kelly Lester, Tess Ferrell, Elise Dewsberry and Jerry Martin, along with Evelyn Halus, Ellen Dostal, Johanna Kent, Christopher Maikesh, Andrea Press, Ben Ryan, Stephen Vendette and Peter Welkin.

The show is adapted from the very popular and much loved Mitford series of books by writer Jan Karon and I was interested in hearing how Ferrell, Johnson and Wise developed the musical. Here's what they had to say.

What inspired you to write a musical based on Jan Karon's books? Were you already familiar with them?

Carl: Several years ago I had finished writing a commissioned musical based on John the Baptist and was trying to decide what to do for my next project. My priest at my church suggested I consider writing a musical based on the Mitford series of books. At that time I hadn't read any of them, so he gave me a set of books-on-tape. I listened to them on a long drive, and found myself circling my destination until the book was over!

How did you approach Jan Karon with the idea?

Carl: On a whim, I contacted the book's publisher to see if the musical theater rights to the book were available, and to my surprise they were. I asked Jan if anyone had ever tried to adapt her books for musical theater. She said that there was a non-musical stage adaptation, but that nobody had ever approached her about a musical. I think she was surprised by the idea, and agreed to let me have a year to try. We came back a year later on deadline and presented her with a completed show and a recording of a read-through. She liked the work and we incorporated her notes into the revised script, which we'll be presenting in Burbank.

So she liked what you'd done with it?

Chana: Yes, Jan was very enthusiastic about the material we presented, and we were happy to get her approval. When Carl approached me with this project, I wondered what it would be like in terms of my capability of writing the thoughts and feelings of a Christian cleric (given that I'm Jewish). But Carl and I worked together previously on a short musical film called The Coffee Quintet that we shot earlier in the year and it was a great experience. Carl and Cynthia, along with lyricist Jeff Marx (Avenue Q), have also worked together writing a 15-minute musical called The Rightful Monarch of America so I knew we were in good hands all the way around. In the end, writing lyrics for this show was a very broadening and rewarding experience.

Cynthia, as the bookwriter, where did you come into the writing process?

Cynthia: The bookwriter goes to work first and is charged with pioneering the way. I started writing the Mitford musical book in May 2008, with Chana adding lyrics starting in late fall, and Carl adding music in December. My musical book created the character voices and the plot of each scene.

Has it been difficult writing the lives of characters that another author has created?

Cynthia: Jan's Mitford series is massively popular, and it's always a challenge meeting fans' expectations for the characters they know and love. She is an enormously popular writer and this is her first foray into musical theatre. What plays on the page is different from what plays onstage. I like working with her characters, and I like working with her. Mostly I love when she reads my dialogue in her wonderful, warm North Carolinian accent

AT HOME IN MITFORD is about second chances for all - that's it's never too late to find true love, safety, peace, family. Jan's bio mirrors that. She was in her teens when she had her only child, and divorced at age 20. She rose through the ranks to build a successful advertising career, but after much soul-searching, she abandoned it at age 50 to become a novelist. We're lucky she did.

Tell us a little about the development process you went through.

Carl: We developed Mitford through the Academy for New Musical Theater's writing curriculum. The advantage of this was that we had monthly deadlines, monthly feedback and a goal of doing a full reading at the end of the year. It was a very compressed schedule, but it kept the project from languishing, and allowed us to complete the first draft within the time Jan had given us.

Chana: Our concert reading in May was directed by Allison Bibikoff (Xanadu) and accompanied by Tom Griep. Some of the actors that were with us then are reprising their roles in the upcoming reading. That early reading was very helpful and allowed us to see where we needed to make changes.

For what audience is the musical geared?

Carl: Jan Karon's books are sometimes thought of as Christian book market-oriented, but I think she sees her books as more about everyone's life experiences. The mythical town of Mitford is a metaphor for Anytown U.S.A. The people and their relationships she writes about could be in any small town in America. I think that part of the appeal of her books is that almost anyone can find something to relate to in her characters and their lives

Chana: I see this as a very traditional type of musical. In contrast to some of the edgier musicals being done today, this is a musical you can safely bring your grandma to without worrying if she'll be offended by the language or the situation.

And the future of At Home in Mitford?

Carl: While we don't know if the show will fit within the current trends on Broadway, we think this show will have broad appeal to family-oriented audiences in most other parts of the country.

AT HOME IN MITFORD will be presented at 7:30 pm on October 26 at The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street in Burbank, CA. For reservations go to http://bit.ly/BWdcc.

Carl Johnson is a two-time Emmy Award-winning film and television composer (Invasion America, Aladdin: the Animated Series), and has recorded his music with symphonies around the world, conducting in London, Canada, Japan, Los Angeles, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. His feature films include Piglet'TMs Big Movie, Disney'TMs Hunchback of Notre Dame II, and Winnie the PoohTM's Grand Adventure. Carl has also composed over 60 hours of music for TV projects, including Animaniacs and Batman: the Animated Series for Warner Brothers, Gargoyles and The Mighty Ducks for Disney, and Invasion America and Toonsylvania for DreamWorks.

Chana Wise began writing irreverent parodies to popular show tunes when she was a little girl, and just really never stopped (although now she is occasionally reverent). Among her recent projects are lyrics for the ANMT mini-musical Ahead or Behind. She is currently working on two original new musicals; Bagels! with Carl Johnson, and Cuban Nights with Nic De Armendi and Jonathan Price.

Cynthia Lewis Ferrell works internationally as a librettist and playwright. She is the winner of the Jerome Lawrence Fellowship in playwriting and the Conquest Prize for her essay "Cries that Register." With works developed via 24th Street Theatre, Moonlight Studios, Celebration Theater and Theatricum Botanicum, her recent staged pieces include Jerome Lawrence Festival winner Snapshoot, the musical and Tennessee Williams Festival finalist 3DB Inside. Latest award: Spektrum Villa Music's 2009 commissioning of Angeleno with Peter Michael von der Nahmer (Germany). She is a member of ASCAP, ALAP and the Dramatists Guild, and is published by Doubleday NY.

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