Greg Stone, Kate Jennings Grant, and Ryan Driscollin Summer of ?42(Photo: Kevin Byrne)
Greg Stone, Kate Jennings Grant, and Ryan Driscoll
in Summer of ?42
(Photo: Kevin Byrne)
Herman Raucher's 1971 novel Summer of '42 tells the story of 15-year old Hermie, a boy who spends a couple of months at an island vacation spot with his family and his two best friends, Oscie and Benji. Over the course of the summer, "the terrible trio" (as they call themselves) learns about love and sex--first from a book, later from actual experience--and Hermie befriends an older woman whose husband is fighting in WW-II. Raucher's bittersweet tale, which won over many more people in its fine film adaptation, has now taken the form of a new musical opening this week at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York.

Raucher told his story from the vantage point of an older man looking back on that year of his youth in which he discovered something like love. One of the most interesting aspects of the musical adaptation of Summer of '42 is the youthfulness of the people involved in the project. Composer/lyricist David Kirshenbaum and book writer Hunter Foster (who is also currently playing the hero Bobby Strong in Urinetown) are up-and-coming young talents, as are the cast members, six of whom--the three boys mentioned above and the three girls that they're after--are played by actors under 23.

"It's like this big, creative explosion, and it's so exciting to be around," says Kate Jennings Grant, who plays the war bride Dorothy. "Everyone is so nice and humble...because they don't know better yet!" Grant, though only in her "very late 20s," is one of the elders of this group of relative newcomers. "I beg your pardon!" she retorts at that suggestion, laughing. "My character is definitely in a very different place in life [from the other characters]--and so am I, so it's interesting. I do have people I can talk to in the cast but, I have to say, the average conversation in this group is very different than you'd have if you were doing The Crucible."

"They wanted to try to make it real, so they wanted to get kids to play the parts, and it really worked out well," says Ryan Driscoll, who plays Hermie. Cast in the role when he was only 16 and just recently graduated from high school, Driscoll was working as an usher at the Goodspeed Opera House, where Summer of '42 debuted, when the casting call went out. "My voice teacher got the press release that there was an open call for the show and was, like, 'Why don't you just go for the heck of it?' So I went down and the director, Gabe Barre, asked me to come to the callbacks in New York. A few days later, I found out I got the part, and I've been with it ever since."

In the show, Hermie and his friends spend most of the summer getting to know a group of girls close to their own age...but Hermie finds himself drawn to Dorothy, who lives in a nearby beach house. "She's funny and gracious and a really lovely person who goes through a life-changing event one summer," says Grant of her character. Her husband is off to war and, in her loneliness, Dorothy eventually leads Hermie to his first sexual experience--a questionable action, given his age. But Grant says, "I don't think of it that way. Especially with everything going on in the world now, it's even easier to relate to someone who is trying to be strong and stay positive and make sacrifices for things she believes in--love and her country. It's really a simple story. I think everybody goes through loss, everybody loves someone and can't be with them, everyone turns to someone in a time of need. And we've all had these summers..."

Kate Jennings Grant and Ryan Driscollin Summer of ?42(Photo: Kevin Byrne)
Kate Jennings Grant and Ryan Driscoll
in Summer of ?42
(Photo: Kevin Byrne)
This portrait of teenagers finding out life truths about love, sex, friendship, and death is something that most everyone can relate to. Driscoll agrees that the show resonates for the entire cast as well as the audience. "The simplicity and realness to all the characters, I think that's what makes the show so special," he says. "I always tell people, 'It's me on stage!' Every one of the actors...it's us up there."

The show has been playing in venues around the country for the last year, garnering impressive reviews and some excellent word-of-mouth along the way. Grant joined the company more recently, when the show went to Palo Alto this past summer. "I've know Dave Kirshenbaum for about eight or nine years and we're good friends," she explains. "He would invite me to workshops of it and say, 'What do you think?' I would give him notes, but he never once thought I was right for the part; I had auditioned for it when it was going to Goodspeed and I didn't get it. Then they changed directions with the show a little bit and brought me back in this summer. It was kind of funny; he couldn't believe it was happening! It's so great to do the show in New York, finally. We're absolutely thrilled." And maybe now is a good time for a musical like Summer of '42, which feels much more timely today than it did when it debuted in the summer of 2000. Though the show is light-hearted in approach, its themes are more immediate today "because of September 11," explains Driscoll. "Everyone feels this wartime era, what we're going through now and what they were going through back then."

Grant agrees. "I sang the last song I sing, 'Promise of the Morning,' at a conference of musical theater people about four or five days after the World Trade Center," she relates. "It's a song of hope and promise and faith that Dorothy sings at a difficult time. When we performed it in the context of everything that was going on, it became a different song. Summer of '42 is really about the loss of innocence--not just this boy, but also the country. Everybody in the piece comes out better and stronger for what they've gone through, and I think that's true of so many people today."