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The City Journals

World premiere of “Behind the Bookstore,” written by Murray High student, to take stage this month

Mar 07, 2018 02:05PM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High senior Ben Stanford directs students in a rehearsal for the world premiere of his show, “Behind the Bookstore.” (Will Saxton/Murray High School)

One day in June 2015, Murray High student Ben Stanford sat down at the piano and started playing a tune he had in his head.

“I didn’t know what it was about — the plot, the characters, the name or anything, but it became the second song in my show and what Danny needs to make it and find success,” he said.

During the next few months, Ben said he wrote a second song and then, a third. Then, a storyline and the lyrics to his first song came to his mind.

“I realized this could be a musical so I talked to (Murray High theatre director Will) Saxton about it,” he said. “I was nowhere close to being a professional, and it would not be easy, but I wanted a challenge.”

That was the beginning of what now is the world premiere of “Behind the Bookstore,” a musical set in the 1900s, not only written, but directed by the 18-year-old senior. The show will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 8 through Saturday, March 10 and again, Monday, March 12. Tickets are $6 for students and $7 for non-students in advance and $8 at the door.

The family-friendly musical has live music that appeals to all ages, Theatre Director Will Saxton said.

Saxton said he has told students if any of them will write a full musical, with all the songs, then Murray High will produce it.

“Ben did just that,” said Saxton. “Ben is very talented, ambitious, hard worker who wants to be a playwright. This is my first student who has ever written a musical and it isn’t just an attempt. It’s awesome. He knows what he’s doing.”

While Ben keeps the second act of the musical under wraps, he said the first scene, set in a Virginia town, explores the relationships of several characters.

It begins as a flashback when Claire is telling her daughter about the town’s history starting when a town bookstore owner mulls over trying to sell his store. Danny persuades the owner to give him a chance as a new manager despite two brothers, who are booksellers, trying to tell him to sell more modern literature.

“The bookstore stands for the town’s legacy and history and Danny doesn’t want to see that disappear,” Ben said. “The brothers are the antagonists, but they’re also the most comic characters in the show. The audience will love how funny they are.”

Amongst the relationships the show explores is that of Claire, the clerk in the bookstore, who is looking for her dreams to fulfill her life as well as a man to love. The show involves Joey, the ringleader, and the town kids who make trouble in their free time, and the mayor, who is Claire’s father, who tries to help them lead more productive lives. The role of Danny’s mother explores her relationship with her son and how advice she gives him has an effect on her son.

At the same time, there is much commotion over a decision whether to make advancements for the historical town. The mayor is set against it.

“It’s an unconventional speech; he is set against it and says it’s the wrong focus for this town. I agree with the mayor, we’re not always in need of new things. I’m a big believer of balance,” Ben said. “It’s a show that is very uplifting although there are some sad side stories.”

Ben, who cast about 40 of his classmates, said there are several prominent figures. 

Danny Thatcher is played by Dylan Short and Claire Benson is portrayed by Meg McKellar. Claire’s father, Mayor Benson, is played by Jordan Evans; and her mother, Rosemary, is Megan Bates. Other lead characters include Arthur Hutch by Joseph Longhurst; Charles Hutch by James Longhurst; Edwin Hutch by Nick McEuen; Doctor Burns by Truman Schipper; Gordon by Savannah Horner; Joey by Merric Horner; Maureen Thatcher by Emma Gilmore; Mrs. Dunsberry by Cassidy Lewis; and Wanda Montgomery by Arianne Chamberlain.

The show, choreographed by seniors Rebecca and Emma Woodbury, include seven featured dancers.

“I’m excited to have people see it. I put hours upon hours upon hours to step up to write this musical. When I first got feedback from teachers and friends, I felt crushed and regretted writing it. I hadn’t realized how much effort and passion it takes to write a musical. But it was because of that criticism and their honesty in knowing it could be better, that I went back to rewrite again and again,” Ben said, adding that his first draft was written one year after he first sat down to the piano and wrote the song in the musical.

He also credited a conversation with his teacher.

“I actually told Mr. Saxton that I wasn’t going to finish the musical because it was too difficult. We had a short conversation about things, and if it hadn’t been for my amazing teacher’s encouraging response I may never have finished this musical,” Ben said.

By January 2017, he had written his ninth draft of the script, with each song, page and character different than it started. 

“I was exhausted from revision, but every week I would still take a scene or song in the show and hash out how I could make it better. There’s a sense of true accomplishment, motivation and happiness in the fact that you, and only you, got something done. And because you wanted to — not for money or for a grade, but because it’s a story you want to see alive,” Ben said.

He estimated over the course of two-and-one-half years, he spent at least one hour per night five days per week working on the script. He gave up a family vacation to Spain and instead, moved in with his grandmother, who first taught him piano, to work on the musical. He altered his class schedule and worked out assignments with teachers. His family stepped up to do various chores around home to allow him writing time.

“It’s been a challenge so I’m thankful for those who helped me along the way,” he said.

This includes when his friend and composer, Josh Ogden, offered to orchestrate the piano music Ben wrote.

“He was our Sterling Scholar last year and one month away from his mission. I didn’t think he would get it done, but he did, and it’s amazing,” Ben said.

“Behind the Bookstore” isn’t Ben’s first attempt as a playwright. As a creative writing assignment in his North Carolina junior high, then seventh-grader Ben wrote “Rival Game,” about a police chief trying to solve a robbery between rival high school gangs. The play won best script. 

At nearby Hillcrest Junior High, as a ninth-grader, he wrote “Bug,” a play about humanity’s faults and mistakes and how other characters affected him, which was produced on the school stage, his junior high director Jewell Loveless remembered.

“It was about how the main character dealt with gossip and his mistakes and even in mortality, it was symbolic of how he would always be with them,” Loveless said, adding that she read through his draft of “Behind the Bookstore.” “The kid is a genius. Ben is just incredible and one day, we’ll hear his name (on Broadway).”

Saxton said that Ben already is an award-winning short story author, drama club treasurer and an accomplished member of the school’s academic decathlon team.

“(He) has incredible talent,” Saxton said.

Ben said he learned a lot through creating the musical.

“Honestly, looking back, writing this musical was one of the greatest learning experiences I have ever had, and I cannot emphasize that enough,” he said. “Every time I finished a new scene or the vocal or piano score to a song, I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. That was a feeling I would never be able to get from anything but hard work.”