With their production But I’m a Cheerleader, the Musical having workshopped a number of times over the years, Andrew Abrams and Bill Augustin’s musical is now open at London’s Turbine Theatre for their world premiere, which today announced an extension until 8th May. The book and lyrics were written by Bill Augustin, with music by Andrew Abrams, and the show has been greatly received by audiences since it opened in February. Andrew will be premiering another of his works, Shining in Misery in the US in 2023, and one of Bill’s short documentaries is currently expanding into a full-length piece. Catching up with Andrew and Bill, they tell us about working on But I’m a Cheerleader, the Musical over the years, having the world premiere run at the Turbine Theatre and the workshop at MT Fest in 2019.
Your production of But I’m a Cheerleader, the Musical is currently running at the Turbine Theatre until 8th May, can you say about the show?
This show has been a labor of love for us for over 15 years and we are thrilled to see a fully realised production. The musical is based on Jamie Babbit’s cult film (released by Lionsgate in 1999), which has gone on to become an iconic coming of age classic LGBTQ romantic comedy.
It’s the story of Megan, an all-American high school cheerleader who has the perfect life. That is, until she finds out her friends and family suspect her of being a lesbian and send her packing to ‘True Directions’, a rehabilitation camp to set her straight. It is at this camp, under the strict tutelage of headmistress Mary Brown, that Megan meets Graham, a sexy tomboy who shows her exactly what her ‘true direction’ is.
Even though the musical is a contemporary adaptation of the film, the structure is very much based in a traditional musical theatre model (complete with a dream ballet and an 11 o’clock number). It’s very funny and has lots of heart.
Who do you think the show will appeal to and why would you recommend booking tickets for the musical?
We like to hope this show appeals to everyone in some way. It has all the trappings of a big musical comedy, but it’s also based on a cult film that is very special to generations of LGBTQ folks. Young queer kids who may not be as familiar with the movie, will see themselves represented on stage in a positive way through a love story that treats queer relationships as affirmative and normal (as it should be). The audiences have been wildly diverse so it’s definitely not just a show for the young or the LGBTQ community. The subject matter (Conversion Therapy) is dark and still sadly relevant, but we treat it lightly. Everyone likes a good love story so we think people of all ages/backgrounds will find something to enjoy. The music runs the gamut between classic musical theatre all the way to a modern day drag tune so there really is something for everyone.
What is it like seeing the audience response to the run so far?
Magical! Inspiring! To see audiences reacting so joyfully to a piece we’ve been on such a long and challenging journey with, makes us genuinely emotional. We are both back in the States now, but it has been so heart-warming reading the beautiful things people are saying about the show on social media. It also makes us want to keep writing, perfecting the show, and bringing it to even more people all over the world.
Can you tell us about working with the cast and seeing them perform for the first time?
This cast is so talented, and they were all so lovely from day one. Kind, funny and so receptive to the material. When we saw the first preview, they came alive in a way that took their already nuanced performances and brought new humour, energy and shine to them.
Was there anything that encouraged you to adapt But I’m a Cheerleader into a musical and how long were you working on it?
Bill – I first saw the movie when my roommate had rented the DVD. It was a very long time ago and Andy and I had just started classes at the BMI Lehmann Engle Musical Theatre Writing Workshop in New York. The first time I watched it, I knew I needed to adapt it into a musical. The following year when Andy and I pitched it as our project for class, the encouragement came from our classmates and teachers with each new song we presented. We were lucky enough to be invited to participate in workshops and masterclasses and eventually presented the first full-length production of the show in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005. The reviews and the audience reaction encouraged us to keep going. There were setbacks and steps forward (and more setbacks) over the years after that, but every time we had a chance to present the material, the response was so positive and no matter how many times we wanted to give up on the project and move on with our lives, someone or something would happen to encourage us to keep going. I could probably write a book about the rollercoaster ride that this journey has been so far. We also started working with one of our big supporters, Adam Bialow (one of the current producers and former lawyer at Lionsgate Films) back in 2006 and he has been championing this piece for years so we owe him a huge “thank you”.
How has the musical changed over time and what is your process of writing the script, music and lyrics?
The basic structure (and maybe 65% of the songs) were there as early as 2005 and since then we’ve re-written a few songs, most of the second act, and made one major structural change, but since 2019 it’s been about refining, and crafting the last 10% of the show.
When we are writing songs we have a fun holistic approach. We will discuss the concept of the song or dramatic moment in the show for a bit before ever putting pen to paper. Often times Bill will sketch a chorus or a piece of the lyric and Andy will then go off of that and write a whole chorus or maybe part of a verse. Sometimes, Bill will write a lyric fully formed and Andy sets the entire lyric as is. Some songs Andy will write the music first and the lyrics come later… each song is different.
But I’m a Cheerleader, the Musical was part of the line-up of MT Fest in 2019, how was this?
It was a little crazy and a lot of fun. We had an incredible cast and 12 hours to present most of Act 1 (which even in itself had five full multi-part songs). 12 hours to do all music and blocking. We were blown away by the reception and that really catapulted us into this next step of a fully realised production.
Paul Taylor Mills knew right away that he wanted to produce the full show and we were planning to open in the summer of 2020, but of course a pandemic put those plans on hold for a couple more years…
Having workshopped the production a number of times, how does it feel now seeing the full musical have a world premiere run in London?
It’s all a bit surreal. When you add costumes, set, lighting, etc, it brings a whole other element that you don’t even really think about when you’re writing the script and score. Our director (Tania Azevedo), choreographer (Alexzandra Sarmiento) and designers have all brought their vision and put so much of themselves into the piece, so that part of the process and seeing it come alive with the band, the design elements, mics, orchestrations, etc. it is life changing.
Andy – This is the first time the whole score has been orchestrated and I’m so grateful to musical director Josh Sood for bringing the score to life. Add an exceptionally talented cast and it’s all a dream come true.
What are some of your favourite memories of working on But I’m a Cheerleader, the Musical over the years?
The literal hundreds of people who have played a part in helping us develop this show over the last 17+ years. They are our friends, Broadway and West End performers, classmates, students, etc. We had the pleasure of doing excerpts of the show in masterclasses for such greats as Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Thomas Meehan, Lee Adams. We got to do the ASCAP workshop in NYC with Titus Burgess and Beth Leavel. The 2013 London reading featured Hannah Waddingham! These were all great memories.
How did you first come to work together and what do you enjoy most about collaborating with each other?
As Bill mentioned, we met at the BMI workshop in NYC. The first year in the program is spent pairing composers and lyricists up to write songs for individual assignments and then the second year you choose a collaborator to write your first full-scale show. Bill had written one song for Cheerleader as part of an assignment. By the second year he thought it could really work as a full-scale musical. He invited Andy to write the music and they started bringing in songs to the workshop. We have a similar aesthetic and sense of humour and both of us are also always willing to make changes and adapt until we get our work right.
Can you tell us about other work you’ve both been involved with throughout your career so far?
We’ve both written some stand-alone cabaret songs, a ten-minute cooking musical, and a few commissioned pieces.
Andy has written choral works, chamber works, and other shows including Shining in Misery which premieres in the US in spring of 2023. Andy is also a professional musical director, actor and Artistic Director/Founder of Capital City Theatre, a regional musical theatre company in Madison, Wisconsin.
Bill has written some plays and screenplays that are in various stages of development. He has had day jobs in film publicity, customer service, publishing and event production over the years of getting Cheerleader to the stage. He’s also produced a short documentary about the iconic NYC piano bar Marie’s Crisis which is currently being expanded into a full-length piece.
Had you both always wanted to work in the industry and how did you start?
Andy has wanted to be in the performing arts since high school. Starting out as a pianist and opera singer in college and then transitioning into musical theatre upon moving to New York.
Bill was writing stories and getting all the neighbourhood kids together to put on a show since childhood. He started performing on stage in high school and then went to NYU as an acting/directing major. Now he’s mostly a writer but still performs occasionally. He can be seen in a couple of commercials in the States.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
Andy’s favourite shows are Sweeney Todd, Ragtime, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, City of Angels, The Great Comet of 1812 and so many more. He’s still waiting to see Hadestown, Come From Away, and any new musical by new writers!
Bill’s favorite shows are Into the Woods, Big River, Hamilton, A Chorus Line among many others. He loves classic musical theatre (Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.) but also new and modern stuff. The SIX recording has had a lot of play time in his house.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
Andy is a huge sci-fi fan and likes any show/film with the word “star” in it. He loves to travel, study history, costume dramas, and astronomy.
Bill lives in NYC and likes walking in the park with his dog, Jude. He watches TV like it’s his job and loves movies, reading, travelling, and learning new things.
What do you enjoy most about visiting the UK?
Andy got his masters in London from Goldsmiths University so visiting London is like coming back to his second home. He loves the pastries, high tea, and all the accents!
Bill never studied in the UK but endorses everything Andy said. He also has many friends in London and loves visiting them and seeing theatre whenever he’s in town.
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