Indeed, Michael Mitnick and Derrick Wang just might be a musical theater team that you'll know in the years to come. They've definitely impressed me in the short time I've been aquainted with them. To be sure, each of them has years and years to become successful, for right now they're just about to start their sophomore year at Harvard.
Two years ago, when Mitnick was still at Fox Chapel Area High School in Pittsburgh, he sent me a script and CD of his musical The Race. It asked: "What would happen if two opposing political candidates fell in love?" There were a few good twists and turns along the way, and the score was affable pop-rock. I wasn't the only one impressed: The Race was named "most ambitious new musical of 2000" by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A year later, USA Today put Mitnick on its 2002 All-USA High School Academic First Team.
Last year, Wang sent me his musical Prom. I dutifully sat down with my pencil, prepared to note on the pages that "m"'s don't rhyme with "n"'s, that plurals don't rhyme with singulars, and that there is such a thing as stressing the right syllable in a word (it's "in-de-PEN-dency," not "in-de-pen-den-CEE;" "PAR-ti-ci-ple," not "par-ti-CIP-le"), but I was astonished to find that Wang didn't make any of those mistakes that even the best pros occasionally make. Prom was well-structured, too. The first act was about high school kids wondering who'd be their dates for the prom and the second was the prom itself and its aftermath. I mean this: Pro-rated, considering that that this 17-year-old had spent comparatively few days on this planet, Prom was the best musical I'd ever read.
When each kid told me that he was going to Harvard, I urged each to find the other and team up, for I would give Mitnick's music a slight edge over Wang's and the latter's lyrics a slight edge over the former's. As it turned out, the two did meet and collaborate, though not in the way I envisioned. Each decided to write his own music and lyrics -- Mitnick did six songs and Wang did three -- for the annual "Harvard Freshman Musical," which they called Get Some. The kids knew enough to follow the advice "write what you know," for the show tells what it's like to be freshmen living at Harvard.
The book, which they penned with Laurel Holland, smartly involves a multi-cultural mix of characters. In one house resides Ben Williams, who's learning EMT in addition to his academic studies; Mark Neiman, a musical theater enthusiast who may or may not be gay; and Rajani Shuklamunian, a rap music fan who hits the booze more than he hits the books. In another house resides Rachel Goldbloom, Ben's childhood friend, from whom he wants more; Bridget Grossenschweiner, who only speaks German; and (my personal favorite, for the character embraces three ethnicities in one fell swoop) Janiqua McChang, the girl nobody wants to date.
The plot centers not only on Ben's wanting Rachel but also employs a time-honored device used in such plays as Sailor, Beware and such movies as G.I. Blues: The bet that a guy can "get some" from a girl. Interesting, though, that even though we're dealing with 21st century kids, the three bookwriters don't make matters overtly carnal. The bet is that Ben and Mark won't come home until they've kissed a girl; the former is assigned Janiqua while the latter is given Elise, who heads the Students for Students Peer Counseling Center. What's more, they must have photographic proof of the kiss. As for Raj, he has a different challenge: to deal with Alison, "who's been ridden as much as the shuttle to the Quad," without having to "do it" with her.
And what's the punishment for the guy who doesn't meet the challenge? It's not an easy one: He must be bronzed and sit in his underwear in a lawn chair next to the famous bronze statue of John Harvard and endure the inevitable tourists who rub the statue for good luck. Wang cleverly has Ben sing, "I'll go play her some slow tunes / Draw her into the trap / (to Mark:) You'll be singing your show tunes / (to Raj:) And you? You'll have no tunes / Just ludicrous rap." Adds Mark, "Well, the woman that I trap / Won't be able to flee. / Once I get her in my trap / Then Venus's fly-trap / Will open to me."
Ben goes to see Janiqua, which is painful, given his lust for Rachel. Making it worse is the fact that she's in the sack with rich kid Fauntleroy Glenshaw, who's already planning his presidential campaign in 2024. Ben is understandably distracted in trying to show his ardor for Janiqua; he doesn't succeed but instead breaks in on the pair doin' what comes naturally. Glenshaw points out that he's the man for Rachel because he can "fly her privately to Nice for the weekend and still be back in time for a Sunday matinee." Ben gets pugnacious and Bridget must silence them with "Saubern Sie herauf inre Verwirrung!"
Meanwhile, Mark goes to see Elise, who offers him everything from candy ("Would you like a Jolly Rancher?") to a dental dam. Mark isn't convinced that she does good work and asks her to tell whom she's helped. She does, in another fine Wang lyric: "There was Toni, who would come / Into the room and start to moan / That'd she'd rather be a bum / Than an investment banking drone. / I said, 'Girl, you be a hobo! / Heck, who cares how much you're paid?' / Now she's broke and plays the oboe / At the Holyoke Arcade." (Love all those o-vowel sounds!) But Elise eventually breaks down and admits that "Fortune cookies give better advice." Suddenly, Mark is blurting out to her that he's really gay, which discombobulates her so much that she doesn't know what else to say but "Would you like a Jolly Rancher?" In fact, he probably would. (The four eventually wind up in the same place, singing a marvelous Mitnick tune called "Questions.")
Then there's Raj, who, before visiting Alison, decides to go by the John Harvard statue to relieve himself. He quips to the statue, "Shield your eyes from my fountain of youth," and is astonished when the statue speaks to him. (God bless Kiernan Schmitt, the young man who allowed his face and hands to be bronzed to play the role.) John tells of his problems; he wants love, but the Statue of Liberty lives so far away! Raj invites him to come and meet Alison; her roommate Becky answers the door and says, "Alison, some drunk wants you," causing an off-stage Alison to ask, "Danny? Stephen? Enrico? Philip? Alvin? Christopher? Jesus? Tiffany?" But when she sees it's Raj, that's good enough.
Ben is still fighting for Rachel and sings her another melodic Mitnick tune, "Take a Chance," that brings us to intermission (during which I hummed it for 15 solid minutes). In Act II, Alison sings a song in which she proclaims, "I'm not a slut; I just have a big heart." Raj decides he can love Mark, but Mark decides he can love Elise. Glenshaw has been with Bridget -- and so has Alison. It's wonderful how the script and lyrics show that the kids are very aware that they're young and that this is a time for emotional and sexual experimentation; they have every confidence that whatever they're doing now won't pigeonhole them into anything, and they may very well grow out of what they're feeling at present. (I wish I'd known that when I was their age!) Sure, there's some sentimentality when Ben tells Rachel, "As I got closer and closer to winning the bet, I realized that I was getting closer and closer to losing you -- which is not worth getting some on a Saturday night. I'd rather get some of you every night for as long as I live." But Ben winds up doing what he needs to win the bet anyway, for Janiqua chokes on a pretzel, our boy (who's studying EMT, remember?) does mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her, and that's judged close enough.
Seems that everybody is winding up with true love except Janiqua -- but wait! The John Harvard Statue tells her, "Hey, has anyone ever told you you look like the Statue of Liberty?" And they all live happily for who knows how long?
Get Some was produced at Agassiz Theatre on the Radcliffe campus, in the same exact space where I saw Stockard Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, and Stephen Hanan cavort in 1967. I wouldn't bet against these kids accomplishing any less than those worthy people over the next 36 years.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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