You have to give it to John Cal. He’s a guy who can make things happen. The Twin Cities resident and long-time musician/composer would make Judy Garland and Andy Rooney happy, as he prepares to launch the premiere of the stage musical Philly.
The show is rooted in Yonkers, NY, where Cal grew up. Passionate about music from the get-go, Cal had a garage band by age 16 and a lot of ambition to go with it. At a health club one day, he overheard a woman singing in the ladies locker room, and he waited outside, asking each woman who came out, “Was that you?” When the singer identified herself, he asked her if she was willing to sing on a demo tape with him.
He loved her voice so much that he renamed his band in honor of her: Philly, short for Phyllis. The re-christened band recorded a five-song demo, and then Cal’s mother gave the demo to her employer, a mob enforcer. No, she didn’t work directly for the mob, she was the bookkeeper for one of the mob’s legit businesses. The enforcer was also passionate about music, and after hearing the demo said he would manage the band.
The band gained some success, but I won’t tell you more than that because I don’t give spoilers. Flash-forward to today: Cal is living in Minnesota, spends time with local musicians, tells them the story and plays them some of Philly’s music, and they tell him they think it’s made for Broadway. It’s not just his friends who think so; a novelist who came to buy a piano from Cal hears about Philly and says, “Please let me write this story.”
So in Oct. 2012, Cal began working with a writer to develop a script. The first draft was done by Christmas. Cal then began networking in the Twin Cities’ theater community and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback.
“Everyone was so encouraging,” Cal said. “They loved the music and story, gave me great feedback to make it better.”
By spring 2013, conversations about staging it began to arise. But given that most theaters have plans three to four years in advance, finding a place to launch it was difficult. There were several local theaters interested in the project, but they couldn’t book it any earlier.
“I couldn’t wait three to four years,” Cal said. “The music is 80s rock, which is timely again right now.”
He was put into contact with the Sabes Theatre at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis, which was looking for ways to revitalize the theater.
The theater had space available for workshop and rehearsal space. As he drew together a cast and crew, word of the project began to spread around the community. More than 150 people auditioned for the 30 available roles. A highly experienced set designer and choreographer both offered to cut their fees to be part of the project, something the budget-conscious Cal greatly appreciated. The production is a massive one, with sets that required a 42-foot bridge with two spiral staircases.
There’s not a space for a live orchestra, but needing to record the orchestral tracks brought Cal back into touch with some of his former Philly bandmates, one of whom came to town to record guitar tracks. Others have purchased tickets to see the show and are excited about the project.
They’re not the only ones coming to visit. Cal has heard from other theater groups that are coming to review the show as well. His goal: videotape the show, package it with a soundtrack and copy of the book, and send it to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He already has people waiting for it.
“We’re years ahead of where people expect us to be in terms of product sophistication,” he said.
Indeed, it’s a huge accomplishment – and something you don’t see all that often anymore – to create a new musical with all-original music, and get it fully staged.
The show runs June 6-15. This may be your chance to get in on the ground level of the next big Broadway musical, right here in Minnesota. Click here for schedules and tickets.
What else is happening in our state? Be sure to check out the 10 p.m. Sunday night WCCO newscasts, where you can learn more in the weekly segment, Finding Minnesota.