It all began in the early 1990s, when producers Peggy Rajski and Randy Stone saw a one-man show by actor-writer James Lecesne that included the character of a 13-year-old boy named Trevor. The two invited Lecesne to adapt Trevor’s story into a screenplay, and Rajski proceeded to direct a 17-minute movie bearing the boy’s name that went on to win the 1994 Academy Award for best live action short film.
‘Trevor the musical’
When: Through Sept. 17e
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
A passionate fan of Diana Ross, who confides in his diary about his adoration for the pop diva, Trevor also has a crush on his schoolmate, Pinky Faraday, a popular athlete. When that crush is discovered he is outed as gay, loses Pinky’s friendship, endures conversations with his clueless parents and a local priest, and ultimately comes to feel that suicide is the only answer. The Oscar-winning film ultimately became the catalyst for a national movement known as The Trevor Project, and the establishment of the first 24-hour crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Fast forward to more recent years when U Rock Theatricals, a New York-based producing entity, decided “Trevor” had potential as a musical, eventually selecting Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music) for the project. The pair had already teamed on “Southern Comfort” (a musical based on a documentary about a group of transgender friends living in the back hills of rural Georgia that was produced at the Public Theater in 2016). Marc Bruni, who directed “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” on Broadway, was brought on board, and over a period of three years oversaw three readings of “Trevor.”
Now comes the show’s world premiere at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, where Bruni will be joined by choreographer Josh Prince, music director Matt Deitchman, and a cast led by two young New York actors — Eli Tokash as Trevor (with Graydon Peter Yosowitz sharing title role duties at matinees). Salisha Thomas (one of The Shirelles in Broadway’s “Beautiful”) will play Diana Ross, with Chicago actors Sophie Grimm and Jarrod Zimmerman as Trevor’s parents and other adults, plus 14 additional young local actors (including Matthew Uzaragga as Walter, Trevor’s science-obsessed best friend, and Declan Desmond as Pinky), as schoolmates.
“This show puts a whole lot on the shoulders of the kids,” said Bruni, who was a child actor himself. “We went through three sets of middle school kids over three years when we did the readings because they aged out of their roles quite quickly, and the character of Trevor was written for an unchanged voice. Luckily our run at Writers is short enough so there should be no growth spurts.”
“The main goal of the Writers production is to see the musical on its feet for the first time, with all the visuals, and with the development of the movement vocabulary, which is a big part of this show because Trevor has such a wonderful imagination,” added Bruni. “That vocabulary is rooted in the dance of the late 1970s and early ’80s, which he could have seen on TV, but there also is movement that suggests how he feels invisible, and so shunned in the halls of his school.
“The story is set in a Midwest town in 1981. Ronald Reagan was just elected president, AIDS was not yet identified, and this was a time when ‘gay’ wasn’t even a widely used term. In fact, Trevor doesn’t have the language for sexual discovery. He has no role models, and no real sense of what is going on. This is quite different from the kids we are working with now, who are incredibly sophisticated about these things, full of energy and heart, and [who] can’t wait to tell the story, though they never knew the world when none of this was okay.”
So, how do you expand a 17-minute film into a full-length musical?
“The show is written in a contemporary musical theater style — not a pastiche or send-up of the era in which it is set,” said Bruni. “The characters have been more fully developed. And about one-third of the score is comprised of Diana Ross’ songbook, which Trevor lip-syncs.”
As for mass appeal: “Everyone has an awkward coming of age moment, even if it’s just a matter of being passionate about something the rest of the kids in your school couldn’t care less about,” said Bruni. “I was the kid rehearsing for the school plays while everyone else was playing soccer.”
NOTE: Writers Theater has posted an advisory on its website, which reads: “This production is intended for audiences aged 13 and up, and contains themes of sexuality and self-harm.”