A Production of Pivots

For new musical, lyricist ends up as director

Jim Semmelman knows how to increase dramatic tension: Enter as a lyricist, then write a play, then rewrite it. Cast the play, then cast it again after one of the leads lands an off-Broadway job. There’s been a whole lot more since the Garrison resident originally was brought in to write the lyrics for what was then someone else’s project. 

The project was a play called Last Chapter, Best Chapter, by Stephen Chinlund. Feeling that there was “not enough there, there,” Semmelman says he asked if he could “create a backstory with more meat to advance and inform the story.” He eventually rewrote nearly all of the story, “showing how we got there, giving the characters’ history, tension, problems to overcome and movement.”

He even altered the title, to Brush Strokes. (One of the main characters is a painter.)

All this was unfortunately followed by the deaths of Chinlund and the original composer. Nevertheless, Semmelman stayed with the work, particularly after a well-received reading of the first act at the Philipstown Depot Theatre last winter. 

The plan was to do a reading of the second act, but the Depot suggested going with the entire production, which is scheduled for a two-weekend run beginning Oct. 27. (In another of what Semmelman calls a series of “curveballs,” the director had to withdraw for medical reasons, so Semmelman has assumed that role, as well.)

Brush Strokes, with music by David Shenton, is “a three-character romantic musical ‘dramedy’ dealing with great loss, love and sacrifice,” Semmelman says. “There is a widowed artist, her millennial granddaughter and the divorce lawyer who realigns, recalibrates and rejuvenates all of their lives. 

“It is essentially a love story, but in this case the protagonists are in their 70s and they have all the same issues as lovers in their 20s but with a lot more baggage,” he says. “There are so few love stories out there for people of a certain age.” There are also “frank discussions about end-of-life choices.” 

The musical was created largely through Zoom, during and after the pandemic shutdown. “David created a wide-ranging score encompassing classical, jazz and more standard musical theater,” Semmelman says. “Each of the characters has their own sound. Virginia, the main character, is more classical, while her granddaughter, Mitzi, is quirkier and jazzy. Eric, who is pursuing Virginia, is more bombastic and standard musical theater.”

Melding the words and cadences of his characters to match their musical counterparts was new for Semmelman. “I didn’t realize at first how the dialogue would be, coming out of the voice of that character,” he says. “I had clear voices in my head, because I would write the dialogue for each. I instinctively knew all three of these characters. Then your actors bring different things to it: They’ll ask questions, you’ll explain it, they interpret it in a different way. I love the collaboration.”

brush strokes

Clockwise from top left: McGrath, Semmelman, Fairbanks, Wintersteller

The actors are Mark McGrath, Lynne Wintersteller and Rachel Fairbanks, who recently appeared in Camelot at Lincoln Center. When Semmelman had to re-cast the play, he thought of McGrath, a fellow graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. 

He then remembered that McGrath’s wife, Wintersteller, was a past nominee for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, here are two Broadway veterans who will already have a short cut, because they’re married.’ Getting a husband and wife to play the love interests is fun and exciting.

“I sent them the script, and they read it that afternoon, then called me at night,” he says. “They hadn’t even heard the music. They jumped in full force, and had some suggestions. They did a sing-through, with their amazing voices. I couldn’t be more thrilled.” 

Semmelman, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and initially wanted to be a performer, has long been a stage manager for professional theater and television, most often for NBC, where he worked at The Today Show for 13 years. 

All that experience has left him well-prepared for the rehearsal process. “I’m constantly changing hats,” he says. “I have a pretty good knowledge of all aspects of a production and a strong vocabulary, which is great because I can communicate in each person’s language.”

The Philipstown Depot Theatre is located at 10 Garrison’s Landing. Tickets for Brush Strokes, which will be performed Oct. 27 to 29 and Nov. 3 to 5, are $30 ($25 for students and seniors) at philipstowndepottheatre.org.

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