It had to happen. With all the attention focused on bullying -- in books, newspaper and magazine stories, in a documentary film and television specials -- it was inevitable that a New York musical on the subject would also appear. But what's unusual about Up to You by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart is that the one-hour show is a children's production, performed by kids 8-18 at the Tada! Youth Theatre in Manhattan. And the musical has a backstory no less remarkable than the show's timely message.
It's 1977 and Hamilton High School is caught up in a spirited campaign for student body president. But a small, thuggish clique of football players and cheerleaders has been terrorizing other kids at school -- and they set their sights on Eric, a quiet student who is gay but has not yet come out of the closet. While most of the students watch helplessly as the bullies humiliate Eric, one girl -- the brainy, free-spirited Wendy -- vows to stop them once and for all. She saves Eric from physical assault, shames his tormentors and happiness finally reigns at the Hamilton High School prom.
Up to You is packed with rousing numbers about respecting other people's rights and poignant ballads about making good choices. It's a powerful teaching tool that breaks new ground for Tada!, the Drama Desk-award-winning kids ensemble led and directed by Janine Nina Trevens. But it's also an emotional trip down memory lane for Rockwell, who along with lyricist Bogart previously created The Musical of Musicals, a whip smart homage to American musical theatre. When he began writing the music and book for Up to You, the story was initially about elections and politics. Then it pulled him in a different direction. He wound up traveling back into adolescence -- and one of his life's most transformative moments on a high school playground.
"I never started out to write a show about bullying," Rockwell said. "But the more I thought about high school, it brought me back to what happened in my own experience." Indeed, the fictional characters of Eric and Wendy are modeled after the real-life Eric Rockwell in high school and his best friend, Wendy Holmes. At a key moment in the show -- as in his earlier life -- he comes out to Wendy, because he knows he can trust her with his secret. "The show has a lot to say about life in America," Rockwell said. "But the parallels with my own life are also pretty apparent."
On opening night two weeks ago, those parallels were on full display. While a crowd packed into Tada's cozy West 28th Street theatre, Rockwell stood impatiently by the door, waiting for the arrival of his guest, the real-life Wendy, who now lives in Brooklyn and works at an investment bank. "She's going to be late," he worried. "Just like she always was in high school." Holmes, true to form, arrived with seconds to spare, just before the lights dimmed. And for the next hour, her eyes were filled with tears. The two old friends sat together in the dark and watched their teenage lives unfold: Lake Tahoe. 1977. Senior year.
"Eric really captured me, he conveyed the sense I've always had of being optimistic and upbeat," she said later. "I really believe you have to put a lot of positive energy out into the world and the character representing me did all this and more. It was moving and startling all at once." Holmes watched herself scatter the bullies, in a moment of raw courage. She wept as her character helped Eric celebrate who he was -- giving him an immense, loving hug -- in an era when coming out was tough, if not impossible, for many kids.
For his part, Rockwell felt a deep sense of relief and awe. A show that had taken on such a personal angle was finally connecting with a live audience, and the male lead up there wasn't just a fictitious character he and Bogart had created. It was him, for better or worse. "You never know for sure how a show will be received, that's a given," he said. "But when it's your own story, that's a different experience. How will people react to that?"
The opening night verdict was clear: All around them, children and adults were cheering the world premiere of an old-fashioned musical with a modern-day message. In days to come, Tada! would hold a panel discussion on bullying and how to stop it, featuring an appearance by Miss New York. The lobby was filled with brochures about bullying, and parents talked to kids about the issue as they left the second-floor theatre and clambered down the stairs.
"This show is a real departure for us," said Trevens, who launched Tada! back in 1984 and has built it into one of America's most respected showcases for original children's musicals. "I wanted Eric to write something that would play off of a contemporary, topical theme. What he and Joanne wound up creating is a musical that connects with people on all age levels -- whether they're middle schoolers, high school students or adults trying to teach their kids about the world. It's a show that has real universal appeal."
But Up to You also celebrates a private, enduring bond between two people that only they can fully appreciate. In Rockwell's 1977 yearbook, Holmes penned a wistful farewell note: "If you ever write a musical, promise me that you'll put me in it." Years later, he remains astonished by her clairvoyance -- and he put that line in the show because it was impossible not to. "This was a message from the past," Rockwell said. "But it means even more today."
Find out more information about Up to You, which runs weekends through May 20, at www.tadatheatre.org.