Years before the U.S. put a man on the moon for the first time, and decades before spacecrafts landed on Mars or zoomed past Pluto, a teenager by the name of Homer H. Hickam —a coal miner’s son from a small town in West Virginia —had a dream. Inspired by the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, he became the leader of a group of boys at Big Creek High School who devoted themselves to building rockets, dubbing themselves the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA).
Hickam, now 74, would go on to earn an Industrial Engineering degree at Virginia Tech, serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, work as an engineer with the Army, and then, in 1981, become an aerospace engineer with NASA. He lived his dream —working in spacecraft design and the crew training for many Spacelab and Space Shuttle missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope mission.
When: Previews begin Aug. 19; opens Aug. 26 and runs through Oct. 11
Where: Marriott Theater, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Hickam’s autobiographical novel, “Rocket Boys: A Memoir,” became a bestseller, and inspired the 1999 film, “October Sky.” Now, the story has been turned into a musical that reunites the Jeff Award-winning team behind Marriott’s 2012 “comic book store” charmer, “Hero” —Aaron Thielen (book writer), and multi-talented composer-lyricist Michael Mahler, whose score draws on Appalachian mountain music, early rock ‘n’ roll and folk rhythms. Directing is the ubiquitous Rachel Rockwell, who this past season did such a brilliant job with Oakbrook Drury Lane’s production of “Billy Elliot,” another tale of a coal miner’s son.
“Developing new work is a huge risk for us,” said Thielen, artistic director of the Marriott Theatre, whose previous efforts include “For The Boys” and “The Bowery Boys – The Musical.”
“We have no donors or board of directors —only ticket sales. And while we are presenting ‘October Sky’ in association with Universal Stage Productions [the theatrical arm of Universal Studios], they’ve given us no enhancements —only the rights to the piece. We also have 40,000 subscribers and long runs, so we need to consider our audience’s taste.”
Happily, in former Chicago actor Christopher Herzberger, the youthful Executive of Live Theatricals at Universal (a force behind “Billy Elliot” and “Wicked”), Thielen has found an involved partner with great enthusiasm for the Chicago theater community.
“After we met in New York, Chris sent me the very long list of every movie Universal had ever done,” said Thielen. “I made a short list of those films I knew. ‘October Sky’ was one I loved, and I had a feel for the tone it could have as a musical.”
What said “musicalize this story”?
“First, it was the era in which it’s set – the late 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning,” said Thielen. “Then there was the place —the Appalachian Mountains, whose musical history is so strong, and whose sound of banjos, mandolins and fiddles you could hear right away. There also was ‘the music of space.’ Finally, there was the story —about a kid who so powerfully wants out of his immediate world even if he takes great pride in it, and for whom the stakes are so high. Those are feelings you can’t say with words; they have to be sung.”
There also was a potent dichotomy at work, with “Those elevators used by the miners that go deep into the Earth, to a kind of Hell, even though the mines are the lifeblood of the town, as opposed to the open sky and stars that suggest heaven.”
For Mahler, “October Sky” was immediately “full of song and yearning, with a story about a dream so much bigger than the characters themselves. It is literally about reaching for the stars. I saw the film when it first came out, and felt I knew that boy from a small town trying to pursue a dream no one else quite understood. The good thing is that this show is based on a movie for which people have a soft spot, but haven’t got everything ‘memorized’,” so it doesn’t have to be a slavish adaptation.”
Mahler confesses to having had a “sci-fi phase” as a kid —“more on the nerd side of the spectrum, like a fascination with astronaut ice cream, and being assigned to write an essay about what it would be like to live on another planet. But now the draw is the rich musical dirt of the story — the bluegrass Americana and rockabilly energy of early rock ‘n’ roll.”
Although he plays both guitar and piano, Mahler says: “I try to write apart from either instrument at first so I don’t get stuck. And I try to get at the heart of what a song really needs to say and do. Here it’s the father-son relationship that defines things, with the two of them learning how to talk to each other despite their different dreams.”
Director Rockwell, who has gathered a formidable cast of 24 top-notch Chicago actors, was not initially familiar with the movie, but was quickly lured by “its strongly community-centered story, Appalachian setting, Cold War backdrop, and both the father-son tensions and the friendship among the ‘rocket boys’.”
“Working on a new musical, especially one as real as this one, is thrilling, because you have great freedom,” said Rockwell. “But with that freedom comes great responsibility, too.”