It’s 1979, just outside London, and a boy is cast to play a female role in the school musical.

Story by Julie Bookman
Photos by Greg Mooney

Three years ago, the Alliance Theatre brought us The Prom, a world-premiere musical that proved to have strong enough legs to sashay all the way to Broadway receiving seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical, along the way.

Now, here comes another musical also concerned with high school students, also being launched in Atlanta. The world premiere of Becoming Nancy, on the fully remodeled Coca-Cola Stage, kicks up the Alliance’s 51st season.

It’s 1979, in the working-class suburb of East Dulwich, just south of London. (“In East Dulwich/ The best advice for you/ is if you’re passing, pass on through.”) David Starr is a high school senior who’s passionate about the pop-rock music of the era.

Posters plastered on his bedroom wall feature Debbie Harry (aka Blondie), ABBA, Sting, and Kate Bush. David often feels like the faces on his walls are the only ones who really know and listen to him. David’s got vocal chops himself.

He sings so well, in fact, that drama teacher Hamish McClarnon casts him as Nancy, the female lead in the school’s upcoming production of the 1960 musical, Oliver!

Wait — what? A boy in 1979 playing the role of the hard-luck Nancy, who belts out “As Long as He Needs Me,” that searing torch song? What will the neighbors say?

David’s mother, Kath Starr, is proud of her son for landing the role and gears up to sew the dresses he’s to wear in the show. David’s dad, Eddie Starr, is less enthusiastic, saying “He’ll be a laughing stock. Why couldn’t he be Fagin or the other little twat in the top hat?” Eddie even blames his wife for taking David to see so many Julie Andrews films.

About six years ago, Broadway musical theater director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell was routinely crossing the Atlantic while working on productions of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in London and Kinky Boots in both New York and London.

“I was flying back and forth so many times,” he recalls, “I’d already watched all the movies. So I was at the airport, looking for something to read.” As fate would have it, he picked up Becoming Nancy by Terry Ronald, a coming-of-age romance published in 2011.

The book was a bestseller in Great Britain. Mitchell, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of La Cage aux Folles (2005) and Kinky Boots (2013), read Becoming Nancy on the plane. Right after landing stateside, he
called his lawyer to look into acquiring theatrical rights to Ronald’s young adult novel.

“The book knocked me out,” Mitchell says. “I was a gay boy growing up in Paw Paw, Michigan, and let me tell you – I could relate to this emotional love story and to David’s journey of self-discovery.”

Mitchell can’t help but be reminded of the countless letters he’s read from young people who’ve seen Kinky Boots. “I have a stack of letters from young people who don’t live in New York or California who wrote to say that the show allowed them to take a step in their own direction.

Becoming Nancy has that same ability. I think about what young trans people are going through these days. This amazing story about acceptance reminds us again that every student is not the same. It provides opportunity for parents, teachers, kids, anyone out there to open their minds.”

While discussing his creative process preparing to begin rehearsals, Mitchell mentioned picking up a valuable lesson in directing from the late Michael Bennett, creator-director of A Chorus Line: Have every line and lyric memorized before going into the rehearsal room.

“I never once saw Michael Bennett hold the script in his hands. He was on his feet and the scene was in his head. You bet I learned from that. When my face is in the script, I can’t watch the actors and feed off of them.”

Becoming Nancy, he notes, is providing him with the chance to deeply develop characters. “A number of people in this story go on the sort of emotional journey of self discovery that I’ve not been able to take with any other show I’ve done.”

His extensive Broadway credits also include Hairspray (as choreographer), On Your Feet! (director), and Legally Blonde: The Musical and the recent Pretty Woman: The Musical (director/choreographer for both).

Becoming Nancy boasts a range of juicy roles. Besides the witty and charming David, a role being originated by Zachary Sayle (a native of Birmingham who was Crutchie in the national tour of Newsies), there are David’s aforementioned drama teacher and parents, plus his Aunt Val.

These four adults (David’s teacher, mother, father, and aunt), are sure to
delightfully surprise audiences by stepping out of their ordinary shoes. There’s also Frances, who urges best friend David to embrace his inner Nancy, and other students at Dog Kennel Road Secondary Modern like bully Jason Lancaster, who says that a boy playing a woman in the school musical is “a full-on freak show.” And then there’s the school’s football captain, Maxie, cast in the role of mean Bill Sikes, Nancy’s romantic interest in Oliver!

“One of the things I really love about this story,” Mitchell says, “is that all of these characters have different views to what’s going on. I like the range of ways they react and interact. You’re going to be able to relate to at least one of these people.”

The director-choreographer has worked on a number of contemporary shows that deal with teen angst and the trials of growing up, but Becoming Nancy hits him on a very personal level.

“I didn’t feel like I had any role models in high school,” he says. “I was left in the dark, with no one to turn to.” Mitchell had that iconic Farrah Fawcett poster (red swimsuit) on his wall in the late 1970s and, though David sometimes confides in the famous faces on his bedroom walls, Farrah didn’t prove to be much help.

As Mitchell dug into the Becoming Nancy script, he contemplated whether or not “my parents ever talked about me being gay. I wonder if they ever had the discussion and if it could have affected their partnership. How did it affect their lives? Did they feel guilty? Did they ever, ever talk about it?”

The director enlisted the versatile songwriting team of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe (Honk! and Broadway’s Mary Poppins), to pen the score for Nancy, and Elliot Davis (Peter Pan — A Musical Adventure), to write its book. All three, he says, also fell instantly in love with Ronald’s novel.

“If you don’t love the story you’re telling, you are going to have a hard time telling it.”

The Alliance Theatre’s Becoming Nancy runs until October 6. Get your tickets today!

About Julie Bookman

Julie Bookman has written about the arts, entertainment and literature as a freelance journalist and, coast to coast, on the staffs of three daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has interviewed such legends as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Liberace, Mary Martin and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

View all posts by Julie Bookman