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Peter Mills and Cara Reichel Bring F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Stage in The Underclassman

Mills and Reichel are the cofounders of Prospect Theater Company, a troupe known for presenting brand-new musicals by emerging theater artists.

Ginevra King isn't a name that rings too many bells, but she has a fascinating place in literary history. From 1915-1917, King was romantically involved with the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would go on to immortalize her most notably as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

The theater artists Peter Mills and Cara Reichel explore this relationship in their musical The Underclassman, which is currently running as a production of Prospect Theater Company, an organization they cofounded in 1998, at Duke on 42nd Street. The pair sat down with TheaterMania to discuss why they value new musicals and how Mills will make his next project, The Honeymooners, sing.

Cara Reichel and Peter Mills are the authors of The Underclassman, a new musical at the Duke on 42nd Street.
(© David Gordon)

The Underclassman explores F. Scott Fitzgerald's time at Princeton University and his pursuit of Ginevra King, the wealthy debutante. What inspired you to write about them?

Cara Reichel: In terms of our personal story, we went to Princeton together. We were both in the Princeton Triangle Club…a [campus musical-comedy theater troupe] that Fitzgerald wrote and performed for when he was in school in 1915. You get inundated with that mythology. That, fused with This Side of Paradise, which we both loved.

Peter Mills: I don't know if we had the idea to musicalize this show until the Ginevra King part of the story came into place around 2004 when her family donated all of her letters to Princeton.

Cara: She burned all of Fitzgerald's letters at his request, and she asked him to destroy hers. He destroyed the actual letters, but had someone type them up. So when he died, there was this portfolio of her letters that his daughter returned to her family, and that was donated to the library. You can see so much of their relationship. That was the catalyst; us having gone to Princeton, loving This Side of Paradise, having the personal experience of the collegiate theatricals that Fitzgerald also did, and the new information about this woman who was an early inspiration for him.

How much primary-source research did you have the opportunity to use?

Peter: I had gone down to Princeton library and looked at a lot of these things. They had Genevra's diary, which chronicled the affair. And I looked at his scores from those Princeton Triangle Club shows, to get a sense of what the music was like.

Cara: We did a lot of research. There is so much digital information online. You can go on the Princeton website and see the manuscripts of This Side of Paradise.

Peter: The scores that he wrote are all scanned and online.

Tell me a bit about the musical style. Do you use quote any of Fitzgerald's actual work?

Cara: We don't use any of Fitzgerald's actual [Triangle Club] writing.

Peter: There are a whole bunch of great things from which I felt I could reasonably draw [given the time period]. Ragtime had already been established and was very much a sound in the air. Operetta was a big part of the musical-theater scene at the time. But there's also the early proto-Jazz Age sound in there, too. Early Irving Berlin stuff is right from their time period. We have a song in the show that's a homage to the counterpoint that he does.

One of Prospect Theater Company's most admirable qualities is how you give relatively unknown musical-theater writers the opportunity to have their shows produced. Was that always a goal?

Cara: That's a big part of how the company became what it was. It started with a group of us who went to college together, and we just wanted to keep making theater. We realized we developed a skill set and a network of artists who were into new musicals. It just sort of came to the point where that was what the New York theater community needed; at that time, there wasn't even the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's really essential that emerging writers have the opportunity to see their work produced before a paying audience. Readings are great at a certain point, but you learn different things when you see your show. I hope that we can continue, because as we grow institutionally, it becomes harder and harder to do full productions because it costs more and more.

Jessica Grové and Matt Dengler as Ginevra King and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Prospect Theater Company's The Underclassman, directed by Cara Reichel, at the Duke on 42nd Street.
(© Richard Termine)

Peter, you've got a big moment in your career coming up, with your musical version of The Honeymooners getting ready for a run at Goodspeed Musicals next spring. How intimidating is it to adapt one of the most beloved properties for the stage?

Peter: It's a bit daunting. When we came to the piece, there was a finished script, and there were song moments that had been carved out for us. You have to write "To the moon, Alice," "King of the Castle," "Baby, You're the Greatest," all these iconic things.

You had to write a song based on the signature catchphrase, "To the moon, Alice"?

Peter: That was actually something they felt strongly that they wanted to address in a song. The first thing people will say if they're inclined to be snarky is oh lovely, a song about a guy who threatens to beat his wife. They wanted to diffuse that, the idea that Alice knows perfectly well he would never lay a finger on her.

How crazy is it to go back and forth between two shows?

Peter: I had a fantastic fall where I was shuttling between the Honeymooners workshop and this. I wish I could have this all year round.

Cara: Because of all the shows we've done with Prospect, Pete has gotten really good at writing and rewriting on the fly. That is a real skill when you're working on a Broadway project. One of the great things about Prospect is having the chance to write a lot.

Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, Art Carney as Ed Norton, Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden, and Joyce Randolph as Trixie in a scene from The Honeymooners.