- Doug Anderson
The lead characters in some of the most popular Broadway musicals are young adults. Twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan of Mamma Mia! plots to find her real father so he can walk her down the aisle. Elphaba's teen-sparked greed and envy shape her life in Wicked. Arnold Cunningham and Kevin Price preach with earnest youthfulness in The Book of Mormon.
Doug Anderson, founder and artistic director of Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, sees this focus on youth as typical of musicals. Anderson was inspired in a different direction: He wrote the musical Welcome to Paradise to tell the story of adulthood.
"I wanted to write a play with middle-aged performers that's about middle age," Anderson, 69, told Seven Days by phone.
Based on the true story of a woman Anderson knew while studying abroad in England in 1973, Welcome to Paradise has a debut run at Town Hall Theater from August 12 to 14, featuring six Vermont actors and a seven-piece orchestra.
The musical's protagonist is 51-year-old Eleanor Murray, whose husband, Andrew, travels to the Middle East frequently for work. One day, Andrew disappears. As government officials inquire about him, Eleanor begins unpacking the mysteries of her husband's life, an investigation that leads her on a journey of self-discovery.
Andrew never appears onstage. The plot follows Eleanor and five other women connected to him in the wake of his disappearance.
The show has about 30 musical numbers, and Anderson said he aimed to make it a raw, realistic story that was also fun to listen to. "It's not a jazz-hands-and-tap-dance kind of musical. It's a very serious, sophisticated story told in a musical way," he said.
Welcome to Paradise is the first Broadway-style musical Anderson has written. He has, however, written children's musicals and directed about 50 musicals and operas, which he believes is the best training for writing in the genre.
He began writing Welcome to Paradise in 1991 with his high school friend Patti McKenny. Early in the writing process, McKenny died suddenly, which put the project on hold.
Then, in 1997, Anderson was swept up in another endeavor: revamping the abandoned building at 68 South Pleasant Street into what is now Town Hall Theater. "Pretty much, my life as a writer stopped in '97," Anderson said.
When the pandemic hit and Town Hall Theater was forced temporarily to close its doors, Anderson finally had time to return to the musical, and he had McKenny's notes to guide him through the writing process. "I still felt like she was talking with me every day about it," he recalled.
Though it felt strange to resume work on a project after a 30-year hiatus, Anderson said, the break provided him with one key experience: middle age. He had gained more perspective on what it means to be that age and to grow older in this society, two central themes of the show.
Soprano Suzanne Kantorski, who will play Eleanor in the Town Hall Theater production, agreed with Anderson that the show succeeds in articulating values and issues specific to middle-aged women.
"Women's wisdom is lacking a platform in many ways. To be able to show this artistically is a privilege," said Kantorski, a semiretired professional opera singer.
Kantorski has worked with Anderson on a number of shows through the Opera Company of Middlebury, which he founded and where he serves as artistic director and set designer. She said she's excited about the musical because it's lighter than opera in both style and content.
"It's all connected and curling around this one man, but it's primarily a show about women," she said.
Kantorski, along with supporting actors Cathy Walsh, Jillian Torres, Melinda Hinsdale Bickford, Nessa Rabin and Sarah Stone, began rehearsals for the production on August 1. Led by music director Ronnie Romano, the show's seven-piece orchestra includes musicians from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Company of Middlebury orchestra.
Though the musical will have full-fledged costumes, props and lights, Anderson said he's calling it a workshop rather than a premiere. He will continue to tinker with the plot and welcomes feedback from the performers on their characters and the show.
"Anything that happens onstage will go through a developmental period," Anderson said. "It is rare to get a musical [correct] right out of the gate."
Once he makes changes, Anderson hopes to present an official premiere at professional theaters around the country.
Though it's exciting to prepare a completely new show, Kantorski said, the workshop stage is challenging for actors because they don't have points of reference from previous performances. Accordingly, she and her counterparts must work harder to create their characters from scratch. "It takes more time to get it right," she said.
Entering its 15th season, Town Hall Theater stages about 165 events each year. The theater just wrapped up a production of Oliver! Jr, performed by 28 kids from ages 12 to 18. Other events this summer include the Big Apple Comics series and the World Music & Wine Series at Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven.
A career-defining project for Anderson, Welcome to Paradise innovates on the musical format, and the story of its middle-aged characters is aimed at a similar cohort of theatergoers.
"It would be cocky of me to say it's a whole new kind of musical, but it really is sort of pushing the boundaries of what a musical traditionally is," Anderson said.