A 2006 Canadian musical, The Story of My Life, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, which received a short Broadway run (5 performances in 2009), had an immensely well received reading last September as part of Tacoma Little Theatre’s Off the Shelf series. So much so that it landed a full production at Dukesbay Theatre in Tacoma opening Friday February 5, 2016.
Directed by Maria Valenzuela, the two character piece about the life-long platonic friendship between two very different men, Alvin and Thomas, has the advantage in this production of starring two longtime friends and veteran Washington Theatre folks, Frank Kohel and Micheal O’Hara.
Frank’s career has included a national tour, singing in clubs, dancing at Disneyland, choreographing a USO Tour, and directing plays and musicals. Locally, Frank’s been seen at the Fifth Avenue, Seattle Opera, Bathhouse, Group Theatre, New City Theatre, Seattle Fringe Festival, BLT, PSMT, Village Theatre, and Artswest.
Micheal was a trumpet and French horn player from Jr High through College. He then took up ballet for the next eight years, where he was introduced to musical theatre. Since then he’s spent the last 30 years acting, dancing, directing, and designing up and down the I-5 corridor.
As a longtime friend of Frank’s and a new friend of Michael’s, it was interesting to hear about their connection to each other as well as their passion for and belief in this show.
DEH: How did this project come about? Did you audition or was this intended as a showcase?
FRANK: Originally, it was my idea. I loved the score and the album, and thought it would be a great part for me. When I was thinking of a great partner, I thought of Micheal. It seemed a perfect project for us. We have been talking about it for a few years. We had pitched it to several theaters, but no takers, so we decided to produce it ourselves. We had picked this February to do the show when Tacoma Little Theatre asked our director, Maria Valenzuela, if she wanted to do something for their play reading series. She wanted to try the idea out and that was the show you saw in September. And that lead to us being asked to take the show to the Community Theatre Competition in 2017. So, eventually we will go the show three times. Crazy, huh?
MICHEAL: The audience response at the reading I saw last fall was so positive. In rehearsal did you know you were part of something so special? I would say yes. Once we began working with the music and text it appeared to us that the message would touch many people. Though it requires the audience to open their emotions, we hoped it would resonate in a positive & reflective journey.
DEH: What insights came out of your meeting with original Broadway director, Richard Maltby. Jr., when he was in Seattle last summer with Waterfall at the 5th?
FRANK: First, thank you so much for introducing us to Mr. Maltby. He was really wonderful to us. First he gave us a lot of history about the development of the show from workshop to Broadway and beyond. One story he told us was how he got involved originally. He had been invited to a 40-minute workshop production and the authors had encouraged feedback from the audience. Mr. Maltby wrote the authors a long letter outlining what he thought was missing from the show and where it should go. Later when he was invited to direct the Goodspeed and Broadway production, the authors told him they had used his letter as their outline to rewrite the piece. They kept it on the piano to guide them as they wrote. Before he was ever involved he had already made a huge impact on the show. He gave us insight into the characters, things to explore, ideas, confirmed directions we were taking the characters. He has a real love for this show and was very open in sharing that with us. I mean, how often do you get the chance to meet the director of the Broadway production of a show you are doing and ask him questions. I was in theatre geek heaven.
MICHEAL: For me, I took away from our time together that this piece was not your typical, feel good entertainment. It reached into your souls a bit. And that they became invested in the message of the piece. He helped in our understanding of why it was an important story to tell, something that Broadway needed to experience.
DEH: Given that the show addresses a complex, lifelong friendship, and you two have a lengthy friendship yourselves, what advantages and challenges presented themselves to you in rehearsal?
MICHEAL: A huge advantage would be that I have complete trust in Frank and his abilities. I know how he works. I love him. My challenge is to keep up with him. To not let him down. I think both of us under estimated the difficulty of this music. The speed and flow of the script, the changing tempi have kept us on our toes.
FRANK: Micheal and I have been friends for over 28 years. He and his wife Sharry are two of my closest friends. We met doing a show and have probably done 10 shows over the years. Like all long friendships, we have had our good times and bad, but we are always there for each other. I can’t speak for Micheal, but our friendship has made it very easy to act out a 40 plus year friendship the show covers. That is a real advantage. Any challenges we may have had working together, we worked out years ago. That is another big plus.
DEH: As the show is so little known, describe the musical style of the piece. Classic or Contemporary Broadway or someplace in between?
MICHEAL: I would classify it as more contemporary. The story may be universal and timeless, but the style and melodic flow place it in more of today’s writing.
DEH: Frank, your character Alvin is, however guarded about it, a gay man, as are you. Micheal, who is happily wed to a woman, plays the straight man. Yet their relationship doesn’t hinge on that. What is your take away from these men, and how are you two like them?
FRANK: That is a really interesting question because we have talked about it a lot in rehearsal and again with Mr. Maltby and in the written material from the authors. The friendship in The Story of My Life is not sexual in any way. And that is from all sources and we have agreed for our production. I guess it is safe to say our real life friendship is the same. Micheal’s wife Sharry says Micheal and I have a bromance. I don’t think of my character, Alvin, as gay or straight. In my head he is truly asexual. Alvin loves Thomas, Micheal’s character, because they are each other’s family.
DEH: You two have lived with the show and roles for months. Longer than the average amount of time spent on a project. Discuss the evolution that took place from reading to full production.
MICHEAL: From our reading to now, I have had some personal hardships, deaths and such, that made it difficult to maintain the discovery with the extra time frame. It did however make me reflect on my own life and allow me to bring some of me to Thomas.
FRANK: One of the great things about theater is that you never stop working on a piece as long as you are involved with it. The reading happened pretty fast and I was just so happy we got through it and didn’t make any major mistakes. The positive response by the audience that night was an amazing bonus. So this full version has been a real chance to explore the material and make many new discoveries. I was just admitting that I finally got something the other day, and I’ve been actively involved with this show almost eight months. I hope that I’m still making discoveries when we get back to the show next year. It has been interesting moving from music stands to adding the staging. Maria has been great about getting us to rethink something we’ve already done. I love this show, the score, and the characters. That has made our length of time with the show very easy.
DEH: What show, musical, or play would you both like to do together in future? And which roles?
FRANK: Wow, I don’t know. We once talked about doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. We talk about shows all the time. I do know there is one that Micheal would like to direct that has a part for me. Maybe we should do a play next time.
MICHEAL: We talked about doing this show again and switching roles. Now that would be crazy! One of my dreams would be to play Cervantes to his Sancho. I would love that.
DEH: Anything else you want our readers to know?
MICHEAL: Frank has always been my bromance. His spirit connects with me. His friendship with Sharry and me… irreplaceable.
FRANK: I think this is one of the first productions of The Story of My Life in the Northwest. So, shameless plug, we are at Dukesbay Theater in downtown Tacoma February 5th, 6th, 12th & 13th at 7:30 pm and the 7th & 14th at 2:00 pm. Check us out at Brown Paper Tickets.