How It All Began
It was November of 2011 and, for some reason that I can’t remember, I was home from college for the weekend. Being that I went to Illinois Wesleyan University, just 30 miles east of my hometown of Morton, this was not an infrequent occurrence. This particular weekend found me sitting in Grace Church on Sunday morning listening to Doug Habegger, the pastor at Grace since before I was capable of forming memories, preach a sermon from the Book of Ruth.
Because we, as human beings, have so many ideas every day, it’s completely logical to reason that we can’t pay each idea its due diligence when it comes to determining each particular idea’s future significance were it to be carried out to completion. Looking back on this particular Sunday, I did not take the time to reason out the future significance of the idea I had that day. In fact, even as I continued to have the same idea at recurrening intervals over the next several months and years, I never truly reasoned out that idea’s significance. Instead, I always seemed to think, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea,” and then would dismiss it from my mind.
What was this idea? Well, as Doug preached his sermon that day, I thought to myself, “I wonder if anyone has turned the story of Ruth into a musical?” Had I had an iPhone at the time rather than my Verizon LG flip-phone, I surely would have googled it on the spot and come up with the answer of “several.” However, seeing as Google was not around to inform me otherwise, I reasoned that I, a third-year college music student studying to be a music teacher, was the first person on the planet to merge this story of ancient Hebrew literature with musical theater in the last 3,000 years or so.
So I set to work. Right there, in Grace Church. As Doug preached from chapter 1 about Elimelech’s dilemma of having to move his family to Moab, I penciled the following lyrics into my program notes: If God in heaven won’t appear, then my future way is clear. I will die if I stay here. I will die if I stay here. Above those lines, I wrote the tiles to two other songs that I thought could be “pivotal” moments in the story. One song was called “Redeemer” and the other was “I Will See it Through.” I had just seen Les Miserables for the first time that summer, and I was so impressed with how Schonberg and Boublil reinforced the most important themes over and over again within the plot and musical score. I felt that Ruth: The Musical, for that’s what I decided it should be called, should have the same sort of thematic arc. Redemption and commitment, at that time, seemed to be the most vital themes to the story.
So that’s how it all began. There was no incredible vision of a huge performance. There was no amazing set design sketched on a napkin. It was just a few lines of lyrics and a couple song titles. Now that I’ve finished the musical, I often use the phrase, “I feel like a dog that’s caught a fire truck,” because this whole experience continues to overwhelm and amaze me. Looking back, that Sunday was the day the fire truck rushed past me and I decided to turn tail and chase after it. I had no idea it was ever going to come to anything. I had no idea I would even finish the project. But I needed something to chase that day, and Doug just happened to give me the spark I needed.
I think it’s fair to say that a musical is the ultimate artistic act of collaboration. If not for the incredibly talented people who came alongside me throughout this process, Ruth surely never would have been completed or produced. When I had the first act completely sketched, I showed it to Phil Witzig during a morning meeting at Eli’s Coffee Shop in Morton. I had known Phil for several years through his leadership of the Morton Community Chorus’s annual production of Handel’s Messiah. I knew that his opinion would go a long way in determining how much energy I would put into finishing the musical. Phil needed no coaxing. He immediately supported the project and offered his services in recruiting and conducting the choir.
After securing Phil as my right hand man, I knew that I next had to land experienced professionals as my lead roles. Through several connections, I was put in contact with Courtney Huffman and Alison Meuth to sing the roles of Ruth and Naomi. After sending both ladies a simple email explaining the concept of the show and a few piano samples of their character’s bigger numbers, both agreed to their roles on the spot. It was only after they had agreed to sing my show that I read their bios. I was absolutely floored! How did a first-time theater composer land a couple pros who had sung opera professionally across the nation? It took another three weeks to find my Boaz. I knew Steve Williams from hearing him solo in several of Morton’s Messiah productions.
I now had my leads; it was time to fill the choir. Phil and I thought that an eight-voice choir would be a good size for this first production, as long as the eight were well trained and had experience singing choral music. Thanks to a grant from Dramatic Crossroads, an artistic non-profit in the area, we were able to secure funds to hire these eight individuals. Through several different connections ranging from Dramatic Crossroads, local college students, Morton alumni, and friends from my time in Hunchback, we assembled the choir over the coming weeks.
Once the full cast was assembled, the rehearsal process began. For the first couple weeks, I rehearsed with the soloists individually while Phil rehearsed the choir. It wasn’t until the last weekend of May that we met for the first time as a full cast. The energy that night was truly inspiring. The professionalism that Courtney, Alison, and Steve brought to the story, combined with the passion that Phil had infused into the choir, made this evening one of my favorite nights of the whole process!
For the next two weeks, we worked to make the show as good as possible. By the time we got to our dress rehearsal at Grace Church the night before the premiere, I was feeling very good about the final product. I think it’s safe to say, given the turnout at the premiere and the feedback we received from those who attended, that we had accomplished something special.
As I sit here and write this reflection, I am reminded of just how much of this show was truly out of my control. I am so thankful to the many teachers and colleagues over the years who have helped, supported, and encouraged my composition training. However, never in a million years did I imagine that such creative and talented musicians would come together to bring one of my works to life in this way. This experience is truly once-in-a-lifetime, and I hope that this show can continue to inspire and encourage many more people for years to come.