t was raining in downtown Moscow.
I was in the front seat of a Lada — a scary little Russian sedan with no suspension to speak of — and my KGB driver was taking the turns way too fast and hitting every pothole. Tied to the bouncing roof was a flight case containing my precious, broken Yamaha SY77 keyboard, for which I’d paid every cent I had.
We pulled up in front a nondescript government building. The bricks were laid poorly — actually all the government buildings had crooked courses of bricks — and rain poured down the walls from blocked gutters many stories above. My driver couldn’t untie the knots he’d used to secure my keyboard case to the roof of his car. The twine was soaking wet. He cut my keyboard loose with a knife he produced from his pocket. The case slid off the roof but we caught it before it could splash onto the sidewalk.
The KGB guy and I carried the keyboard through the heavy oak door. Do you remember the KGB? Russian secret police? Now he, I, and my keyboard were vanishing into a Soviet Government building in the middle of Moscow. It was August, 1991.
How did I get here?
In 1990 I was a 20 year old music composition student at UC Berkeley in California. I wasn’t much liking the music we had to create for class; my passion was always for musical theater and film music, and this modern concert stuff wasn’t really “my thing.”
At that point I was playing with a band every Friday and Saturday, and conducting a choir and playing pipe organ every Sunday at a church two towns over. Every waking moment was music, music, music. I was a year away from graduating and had no clear idea what I was going to do next.
Then one spring Sunday, the Monsignor at the church asked me to drive with him from Concord to Malibu the following week. He was in his eighties and didn’t want to make the eight-hour drive by himself. The band wasn’t playing that weekend. I hadn’t been to LA in years. This sounded like a nice, paid vacation.
I was figuring on some free food and time at the beach. What I didn’t know was that my old theater cronies from high school were putting on a production at Pepperdine University in Malibu that week. I hadn’t seen them in three years. This was before cell phones, before social media... heck, it was before the internet. I jumped at the chance to reconnect.
By the end of the trip, my former theater director had commissioned a new musical from me.
This was not what I had expected when I drove down to Malibu that spring.
I wrote the thing in two weeks flat. Rehearsals started while I was still composing. The work was called Cinderella, with original score, lyrics, and book. We rehearsed for six weeks, then the curtain went up on my first professional show.
I was completely stunned. Seeing this beautiful confection of a show transferred from my imagination to the stage was an utterly enthralling experience. I didn’t want to do anything else. I’d found “my thing.”
A year later it was 1991 and I was working on my second commission for the theater troupe. This one was to be a new version of Beauty and the Beast. I had a unique deadline this time: Disney’s film of the same story was appearing in May of that year. I wanted the last note of my score on paper before their movie opened, so no one could accuse me of plagiarizing. I beat Disney by a week.
The new show was going to be produced in the fall of 1991. Before that, though, was another first for our group: we were going to produce a musical overseas. Specifically, West Side Story. In Russia.
This was to be a co-production between our Youth Theater Group and the Young People’s Theater of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow. 13 American teens and 14 Russian teens would grace the stage with their energy and passion. It was tricky to get permission to produce West Side Story, since the show was banned in the Soviet Union. They didn’t want a show about class and race warfare in their Soviet class-less society. But... this was the era of Gorbachev and “glasnost,” or “openness.” We would put the show on for a week in Moscow, then return to the States to tour the show through California.
My Beauty and the Beast was to be set in 14th-century Russia, so we planned to workshop the bits that were complete while we were there as well.
So I packed up my keyboard, and away I went.
To be continued...