LDS composer performs musical on NYC stage

Published: Monday, Aug. 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Mozart was composing symphonies at age 5. Up-and-coming composer Erica Glenn wasn’t far behind when she wrote her first piano solo at age 6.

Now 20 years later, Glenn has composed and published six musicals, including “The Weaver of Raveloe.” The musical was performed last July as a developmental reading at the prestigious New York Musical Theater Festival.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” Glenn said of her play’s New York reading. “It’s the musical theater world’s equivalent of Sundance (Film Festival) for film productions.”

Glenn first published a musical at age 12 when two Utah County theaters produced her play.

When she first started taking piano lessons as a child, Glenn said she always loved to create music of her own.

“I always enjoyed the creative side of things even more (than performing),” she said. “I always loved the vision behind the project.”

Glenn received her undergraduate degree in composition from Arizona State University, and in May graduated with her masters from the Longy School of Music in Boston. She also spent a summer in New York City in 2011, working with Charles Strouse, composer of “Annie” and “Bye, Bye Birdie,” and Richard Maltby Jr., lyricist of "Miss Saigon" and "Baby."

When she returned from her mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine, Glenn said she came home looking for a project that would allow her to “feel like a missionary,” and allow her to use her creative and musical talents.

The story of George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” seemed like a good fit, because of its timeless themes of love and justice. In the novel, Silas Marner becomes a reclusive weaver in a village after he is accused of murder and abandoned by the woman he loves. Glenn compared the story to that of “The Secret Garden” and “Les Miserables” — it seemed like it should be musical. As she began to write songs based on the story, “The Weaver of Raveloe” was born.

Glenn said she has since revised the script of this musical at least 100 times.

“And I mean, a good revision, top to bottom, 100 times,” she said. “It’s how the world of theater works.”

Glenn said when she worked with Charles Strouse, he told her he wrote a completely new opening song for “Annie” the night before it opened on Broadway.

“It’s fun. I enjoy that give-and-take and continual improvement and working of things to get it just right,” Glenn said.

“The Weaver of Raveloe” was first selected for a workshop at Brigham Young University in the fall of 2011, then a partial performance was held at the Salty Cricket Composer’s Collective in Salt Lake City this spring. Then, the musical was selected for a developmental reading at the NYMF this July. Glenn was honored but a bit nervous about pulling off this important New York reading.

“You basically self-produce (in the NYMF),” Glenn said. “I knew that in a two-month period, I was going to have to pull together an entire cast of people and raise funds to get the cast to New York and back. And there were lots of logistics that I ended up having to head up. It was a crazy, whirlwind few months.”

But, Glenn said she was amazed at how well everything came together. Sarah Houghton, a friend Glenn had met at an LDS Church meeting in Boston, is currently working on her doctorate in music education at Boston University while directing children’s choirs at a prep school. Houghton had a background in musical directing, and said once she found out that Glenn’s musical was going to NYMF, she was eager to help in any way she could.

Houghton eventually came on as the musical director. She and Glenn worked their combined networks to find performers willing to volunteer their time, and before long had a full cast.

Glenn said most developmental readings at the NYMF spend around $10,000. Through donations from friends and family, Glenn said they were able to generate $3,000 to produce the musical — and they stayed within budget, even with the $1,000 festival entrance fee.

Every person involved in the production was unpaid, but Glenn said those involved were eager to donate their time.

Chelsea Ashton, who played Molly, the female lead, said she enjoyed the opportunity to put on the first full-length production of a new musical.

“It was great to take this music from a page that no one else had done,” she said. “To create from scratch a character and musicality and emotion; to be able to kind of take this work on paper and make it something real.”

She said being able to perform in a theater in Times Square, enveloped by theater houses playing Tony Award-winning shows, was like a surreal dream for her.

“There was a rush about it, a professionalism about it as well as a seriousness about it that perhaps you don’t get anywhere else,” she said.

Ashton had also met Glenn through her Mormon ward, and enjoyed working with her, especially because of the freedom she gave the performers.

“She had a great vision for (the musical), but she also was really great in letting us individually take the characters into different places than she had envisioned,” Ashton said.

She also enjoyed Glenn’s energy and said rehearsals were always much better with Glenn there because of her positive influence.

Houghton also enjoyed Glenn’s presence in the rehearsals, something she said is rare when working on a musical. Any time they had a question or confusion, the composer was there to clarify her ideas and vision.

At NYMF, the cast performed a developmental reading, which means they were allowed to have music stands with their script, the show wasn’t fully blocked and they didn’t have a full set or costumes. They performed two readings on July 11, and received audience feedback. Glenn then rewrote the play, and the revised version was performed days later.

Glenn ended up rewriting the first 26 pages of the script and three new songs in less than two days. Houghton said Glenn spent the night sitting on her bed typing away while everyone else was trying to get some sleep. The cast rehearsed her revisions on Friday, then performed them on Saturday.

“It had to be up to par with what we had rehearsed for weeks,” Ashton said. “It was nerve-wracking, but it gave a positive adrenaline to the performance. It made us refocus and hone into what we were doing. ... It helped enhance the show.”

Ashton said she has a high opinion of Glenn and thinks she is incredibly talented.

“Her music is the kind of music you hear on Broadway,” she said. “It’s the kind of stuff you listen to growing up. There’s an incredible level of talent and professionalism to it.”

“Her composing style is different than all of the other composers out there,” Houghton said. “It’s inspiring because she’s coming up with something new. She’s a go-getter and I’m inspired by that.”

Glenn hopes to be produced on Broadway one day and plans to continue collaborating.

“I love being the creative force behind something and seeing it move forward,” she said. “I love seeing not only the way the final project affects an audience, but the people along the way.”

Email: mgarrett@desnews.com

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