||It may have all begun when Ali Gordon ’08 was 11, performing in a BWL musical, and choral instructor Michael Roberts noticed her promising voice. An author of widely-performed scripts himself, he gave her voice lessons and introduced her to the world of musical theater. He remains, according to Ali, “the number one influence in the fact that I’m in musical theater at all.”
With lyric passion, she starred in BWL musicals each year, adapted Lord of the Flies into a musical script as a 7th grader in Ms. Bornstein’s English class, and excelled in Mr. March’s creative writing class as a senior, which she cites as “very helpful” toward finding her voice. Now she is a junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in Musical Theatre and English. In a dramatic turn that may be the grist for her own future musical, Ali’s recently completed musical script—her only one since 7th grade—became the first full-budget musical written by undergraduate students ever to be performed at the University.
The idea came when she was sitting around with two fellow students from the Musical Theatre program. “We were casually talking and saying that at some point before we die, the three of us should collaborate on some sort of musical,” she recalls. But then, a tumble of fateful events, a “whirlwind crazy” six weeks of writing, and their script was accepted for the fall studio musical.
Ali wrote the script, or “the words between the music” for Gibson Fleck. It chronicles a young man, abandoned as a baby, and shunted from family to family, who is looking for home. Her co-collaborators, A.J. Holmes and Carlos Valdes, both seniors, wrote the music and lyrics. Earlier last year, the pair achieved another milestone when their prior musical made it onto the Billboard charts—the first time a college musical cast recording had attained this feat.
It so happened that early last May, Professor Brent Wagner, Chair of the Musical Theatre program, had burned through 50 scripts for the fall production, but none seemed right for the large ensemble cast. That’s when his colleague, Professor Linda Goodrich, approached Ali, A.J., and Carlos to ask whether that “someday” of writing their dream project might come sooner—much sooner. She needed the script, music, and lyrics by mid-June.
“Having that deadline was a blessing in disguise,” recalls Ali. Initially, there were the brainstorming sessions into the wee hours, the shuffling of plot cards onto a corkboard, and such intense collaboration that the group is hard pressed to recall whose ideas were initially whose. “People weren’t necessarily prideful,” she says. “Everyone had their opinions and everybody sort of shared them and sometimes you took them and sometimes you didn’t.”
Once the play was accepted, the work took on a new dimension. At one point, Ali deleted 50 pages of script. “I rewrote more of the play than I originally wrote,” she says. Initially, Gibson’s mother was conceived as the lead role; now she appears only through flashbacks and her diary entries, which Gibson reads. Through Goodrich’s direction of lighting, dance, and shadow play, Gibson travels twenty years in time, through his hardened and comic past. The show ran from November 18th to the 21st, and even in the weeks leading up to it, Ali was still busy with the finer points of the script.
Ali still mines her BWL connection through Michael Roberts and his wife, Andrea, who chairs the music department. Ali’s relationship with Mr. Roberts has come “full circle.” Now they talk about contracts, guilds, and the business of writing. “He’s actually still a huge part of my life,” she says. She recalls the fateful day Mr. Roberts introduced her to Steven Sondheim: “I heard that and thought ‘I don’t want to do anything in life besides be part of that music.’”