Greg Cooper smiles a lot. The executive producer of Acappella, an entirely vocal musical show opening its weeklong run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival Tuesday, July 7, leans back at one point, lets out a hearty laugh, and talks about how this 12-year journey to get the show made has been a “pleasurable torture.” The phrase harbors no negative connotation because it is delivered with a big smile and because it is clear that Cooper’s experience getting here has paralleled the show’s tagline: “a musical about finding your own voice”. It is also apparent that he could not be happier with what is happening, regardless of any obstacles he has faced along the way.
In 2003, Cooper heard about the success of MAMMA MIA! (a tribute to the music of Swedish pop group ABBA) and the surge of other jukebox musicals which flooded New York City’s theater scene and he immediately thought of the extensive catalog of music produced by The Acappella Company and its founder, Keith Lancaster. Lancaster formed and sang with the Christian vocal quartet Acappella in 1982, and he still advises the group along with several other Christian vocal groups. Lancaster and The Acappella Company have been prolific, producing dozens of a cappella albums over the past 25 years, and Cooper describes that catalog as the “music of my life.”
Realizing the impact this music could have on others, Cooper sketched out his plan for a musical derived entirely from that catalog and reached out to Lancaster in 2003. Things did not work out and the project went on the shelf, but Cooper never lost hope in the idea. In 2011, Cooper moved to Atlanta and told a friend about his long-dormant idea for a show. After receiving some encouragement, he contacted the New York Musical Theatre Festival and festival representatives suggested that he continue developing the idea further. At that point, Cooper knew he needed help with the story so that his show was not just a collection of unrelated spiritual songs. A friend introduced him to Vynnie Meli, a local who just happened to be a successful playwright, lyricist, and librettist who had opened her show “Plagued: A Love Story” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2009.
Meli, who balances Cooper’s bubbling volume with quiet intensity, had some initial reservations about the project. Jukebox musicals, which build upon preexisting songs, often from popular music, were quite different from Meli’s experiences creating a story from scratch and working with a composer to craft original music which drove or supported the story. However, when Cooper provided her with 18-20 songs by The Acappella Company, she noticed significant potential in the music, which she believed could be harnessed to take an audience on an emotional journey. Meli agreed to work with Cooper, setting aside the book he had begun years earlier, and the two spent several months shaping a story which could evolve and incorporate Meli’s trademark blend of humor and drama. The duo explored and probed, trying to find a way to build a story which would be universally appealing around music which was inherently spiritual and faith-based. It was important to both that the story not be religious or set in a church so that it could be accessible and emotionally engaging to all, a show which was inclusive rather than exclusive. Then, they hoped, it could take any audience on a journey, one with a deep and profound impact which would also entertain for a full 90 minutes.
While Meli’s aim was simply to write a book that achieved this goal, Cooper had always intended for the show to be entirely vocal, with no instruments of any kind. As they developed the show further and explored the role that vocal music would play, they came to realize that it was indeed a show about the struggle everyone faces in finding his or her own voice, and the tagline which Meli conceived became an obvious and perfect choice.
As they labored with writing and re-writing the story, the popularity of a cappella music in mainstream media began to soar. Pentatonix won a Grammy award, The Sing Off once again brought in several million television viewers and launched a successful tour, and Pitch Perfect 2 grossed $70 million in its opening weekend alone. All of this provided Cooper and Meli with a “wonderful lift,” but did not affect or change their plans for the show in any way.
Earlier this year, they put together a diverse creative team which includes experienced director (and performer) Lee Summers, choreographer Leslie Dockery, and music director Evan Feist, who is well-known in the contemporary a cappella community for his participation with coaching and teaching at a cappella festivals and his work with Stacks of Wax Productions and various a cappella groups. Feist, whom Cooper calls a “musical genius,” dove into the deep catalog of music released by The Acappella Company and, with a “great deal of respect” for Lancaster’s music, “crafted arrangements that allow the music to be true to its form” but still felt modern and culturally relevant.
With a creative team in place and just two months before the show’s run was set to begin, cast auditions were held in April and May. According to Cooper, the team was lucky to find some of the “most talented people in the industry,” a cast who can really “sing their faces off.” In fact, the cast features veteran musicians and performers who have appeared on and off-Broadway, in national and international tours, and in television and film.
As the show approaches, Cooper and Meli have faced numerous logistical challenges which one might expect in putting on a production that shares its theater space with other shows (as is customary with NYMF). They acknowledge that having a creative team and cast who are devoted to and invested in the show makes things easier, or at the very least more enjoyable. Regardless, there is much for them to accomplish in the days leading up to the show and it was very generous of them to give me time that I know they very much needed for other production tasks.
Acappella will not be the first staged show to feature all a cappella music. It will, however, be the first to feature a story carefully crafted by a talented and experienced playwright/lyricist/librettist whose goal was not to put on an a cappella showcase but rather to give the audience an honest, emotional journey with moments of laughter, tears, joy and hope. Cooper and Meli feel confident that this is a journey worth taking, that they are the ones to take an audience on this journey, and that the journey will extend in some form and location beyond this weeklong run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Considering their enthusiasm and devotion, I can only hope they are right.
The show runs Tuesday, July 7, through Tuesday, July 14, at the PTC Performance Space in midtown Manhattan. I will be seeing the show Sunday, with a full review to follow on Monday. If you live in the New York City area, you can find tickets at http://nymf.org/festival/2015-events/acappella/, learn more about the show at http://acappellathemusical.com/, and support them by making a donation at https://newyorkmusicaltheatrefestival.formstack.com/forms/nymf_donation_form__copy?field24380583=0014000001GQ71G.