Andrew Abrams on a dream realized and his next Madison show
Capital City Theatre's artistic director to stage "But I'm a Cheerleader!" in London, then return to Madison for next local show: “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Andrew Abrams only had to wait two decades for this dream to come true.
Abrams, the artistic director of Capital City Theatre, wrote the music for “But I’m a Cheerleader!”, an original musical co-authored with Bill Augustin way, way back in 2002. The show’s based on a 1999 cult film about a teen cheerleader (played by Natasha Lyonne) who embraces her sexuality and finds love after her parents force her to attend a conversion therapy camp. After a seemingly endless array of fits and starts, Abrams and Augustin’s musical is set to receive its first professional staging in late February, at the Turbine Theatre in London’s Battersea Station.
“I loved the story,” says Abrams, who first saw the movie a few years after high school. “But as the years went on, I had to ask myself, is the world too progressive now to be OK with this? This is a show about people being sent to straight camp.”
Over the past few years, the cultural and political pendulums have swung back again, as representation and LBTQ+ rights have become flashpoint issues across the country. “We took a step backward, and it’s relevant again,” says Abrams.
The musical always enjoyed popular support. It won Best of Festival at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2005, but problems with negotiations over production rights left it stuck in development for years. Other stagings — at a workshop in Georgia in 2011, a 2013 reading in London — resonated with audiences but failed to generate enough momentum to carry the show to the next step. Still, Abrams persisted.
“We did the show at a festival in London in 2020, and the reaction was really positive,” says Abrams. “High school and college girls felt they had a story they could connect to. It made them feel better about themselves.”
That positive reception was the final boost to propel the show to a full production — which, naturally, was slowed again by issues with the pandemic and live performances, which delayed the opening three times. Assuming there are no further COVID-19-related delays, it’s finally set to open Feb. 18 and run until mid-April. If the show finds success at the Turbine, it could end up transferring to a West End theater and touring around the United Kingdom.
The London debut has been stripped down from its original 20-person cast. This version features a dozen actors, many of whom are double-cast: The mother of the main character, for instance, doubles as a drag queen later in the show.
Abram wrote the music for the show, and Augustin wrote the lyrics. Abrams is particularly proud of the song “Wrestling,” a tune about one character’s struggle to be himself.
“It doesn’t forward the plot, but it’s the heart of the show,” Abrams says.
Abrams’ professional career now centers on musical theater, but he was always a music person first. He majored in voice at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and had initially planned to become an opera singer. While he was in college he founded Middleton Players Theatre, a community theater program. He looks back on those summers spent music-directing shows at MPT as a sort of on-the-job training experience.
It wasn’t until he moved to New York that he committed to a career direction. “I was sort of like, whatever takes me first: musical theater or opera,” he recalls. The latter won: He landed a gig as the assistant conductor of the national touring production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
While in New York, Abrams applied to the BMI Musical Theater Writing Workshop Program, where he learned the ins and out of writing a show and produced the first draft of “But I’m a Cheerleader!” He also taught, directed music and performed as a means of figuring out the musical theater repertory.
Abrams had wanted to start a professional theater company in Madison since the 2000s, but it wasn’t until Gail Becker, Capital City’s current managing director, approached him about becoming artistic director of a new company in 2014 that he realized the time was right. Capital City debuted in 2015 with a production of “Violet” in UW–Madison’s Music Hall and is currently in the middle of its sixth season. Abrams says that, thanks to strong donor support, the company is in better shape financially that it was before the pandemic hit.
Abrams flew to London this week to oversee the final run-up to opening night for “But I’m a Cheerleader!”. When he returns, he’ll turn his attention to Capital City’s next production, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” a show based on (what else?) Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Abrams calls it the “most expansive thing we’ve ever done.”
The show features an element of audience immersion — actors will move and sing among the audience members — and it’s being staged at Four Winds Farm in Fitchburg instead of a traditional theater space. The venue presents its own set of challenges.
“We have to bring everything in ourselves,” explains Abrams. “How do we make sure the sound works?”
“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” opens June 3 in Madison’s Capital City Theatre.
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