A new musical based on the work of Neil Simon has been placed in the hands of children.
This weekend, Musical Fools, a musical adaptation of Simon's 1981 Broadway comedy Fools, held its world premiere in Los Angeles. One would assume this would include a troupe of veteran actors and a flashy venue like the Ahmanson. Instead, Phil Swan and Ron West, who co-wrote Fools' music and lyrics, took a risk by casting students of the Ramon C. Cortines High School for the Visual and Performing Arts and staging the production in school's theater.
The concept of Musical Fools originated from another student production. In 2004, Swann attended a student production of Fools at Birmingham High School in California, where his wife Amanda worked as a theater educator. The play depicts a young teacher named Leon Tolchinksky who stumbles upon Kulyenchikov, a provincial Ukrainian hamlet under a 200-year-old curse that causes the townsfolk to behave idiotically. Leon has 24 hours to break to enchantment or he too will suffer the same inhibition of intelligence. While watching this comedic fable, Phil jotted down the note “This would make a great musical” on his program.
Later that year, Swann and West produced their musical The People vs. Friar Laurence through the Second City and Chicago Shakespeare Theater and found themselves with the same literary representation as Neil Simon. Seizing the opportunity, they requested permission from Simon to translate Fools into a musical. Simon agreed, although that was the extent of his involvement in the current incarnation of the show. Swann and West hoped a successful staging may secure playwright's participation in future productions.
As for the staging itself, Phil's wife once again proved to be influential. Amanda began teaching acting at Cortines around the time her husband and West were looking to mount their fledgling project. Seeing a unique opportunity for these students to work on a world premiere musical with professionals, she proposed producing Musical Fools at the high school. All the creators agreed, including Simon.
“It was a win-win-win situation,” explained West. “It is an ideal script for teenagers; Phil and I got to stage the whole in very quick order; and Mr. Simon can see our progress and how he wants to move ahead.”
While the cast members may be teenagers, they are hardly neophytes. Mason Park, the 17-year-old senior portraying Musical Fools' protagonist Leon, has already earned a litany of theater achievements, including the first ever Jerry Herman Best Actor Award, a high school musical theater honor bestowed by the Pantages Theater, for his turn as Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly!. In June, he became the first Cortines student to perform on Broadway, singing at the Minskoff Theater as part of PBS's televised documentary Broadway or Bust.
For Park, the cast's adolescence provides an advantage.
“The show works so well with a youthful cast,” he says. “The energy, pace, and heart that each performer brought to each character was wonderful to experience every night. I think the enthusiasm of the group helped make the show what it is. All of us are still learning and growing, and that exactly what the show is about. There was a certain innocence that allowed the audience to connect and fall in love with the stupid villagers in Kulyenchikov.”
Park's performance benefitted from more than just realistic naivete and exuberance. The teen thespian already exhibits an emotional vulnerability that adds dimension to simple, comedic scenes, as was evident in the final performance on Saturday night.
“There is a scene where my character, Leon, is trying to convince the antagonist to adopt him,” Park says, “and they share a very touching moment where Gregor reveals that he always wanted a son, and Leon says 'I've never really had a father.' That night, I just began to cry during that scene, not just because it was closing night, but because it meant so much to me as Leon to finally get that fatherly figure that he never had, and what was initially written as a cute scene transformed into something beautiful that added an entire new element to the show. It was a very touching and magical performance, and I will never forget it.”
Park is also looking towards the future beyond Cortines. After graduation, he plans on moving to the East Coast to study musical theater. While acknowledging the risks and hardships pursuing a performing arts career entails, Park views the career as a selfless one. “As an artist, it's my job to perform for other people's benefit, not mine,” he says. “Even if I'm not successful, or perform in some small cabaret theater all of my life, I think I would be incredibly happy, because I do it for love. Because of this outlook, I haven't really preplanned my future, I just believe that I will be doing what I love for the rest of my life.”