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Wayland's pop hit: Shakespeare the musical

Had you been a fly on the wall at Wayland Middle School in the spring of 2005, you might have witnessed the birth of an unusual theater piece that has taken a very unusual international trajectory - from Wayland to Johannesburg. It went like this:

Drama instructor Tom Large rushed, breathless, into choral director Stephen Murray's classroom and burst out rapping, "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Stylin' with Malvolio." Murray laughed hard, and Large explained that the lyrics came to him out of the blue. Then they both agreed that this hip-hop ditty is perfect for the scene in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in which lovesick Malvolio is tricked into getting an ill-conceived makeover.

"That was when it all caught fire," said Large. "That was when we knew we were going to turn 'Twelfth Night' into a musical."

It was also the moment that the duo launched a yearlong writing process that ended with their script being snapped up by Eldridge Publishing of Florida, then sold to their first client: a school in South Africa.

Now, students at Michael Mount Waldorf School in Johannesburg will be hip-hopping, gospel singing, and swing dancing to Large and Murray's take on the Bard, just as Wayland Middle School students did in spring 2006.

"Who knew it would be an international success so soon?" said Murray with a hearty laugh.

When they began, making it in Johannesburg was far from the minds of Murray and Large, both relentless do-it-yourselfers when it comes to school plays. Every fall for the last 10 years, Large has adapted Shakespeare for his students. Every spring, he reworks Broadway musicals. Meanwhile, Murray began writing youth musicals back in 1992, while teaching at the now-closed Oxford School in Northborough.

"The school director told me they couldn't afford to pay royalties for an existing play, so I slapped together my own musical version of 'The Tortoise and the Hare,' " said Murray. "The parents and kids liked it, and to my surprise, it won a national award. So I thought, hey, I can do this."

Freelance Press, formerly of Dover, quickly purchased Murray's "The Tortoise vs. the Hare," thereby introducing him to the thriving market for youth-oriented theater scripts.

"It turned out there was this void between elementary and high school for theater, and I wanted to bridge that gap," said Murray. "Since then I've found my home in the middle school musical."

Murray has since written more than a dozen youth musicals, many for summer workshops he directed. A number have garnered awards, and they've been performed countless times around the country. His "Boogie Woogie Bugle Girls," written with Craig Sadaro, was even translated into Dutch as "De Boogie Woogie Bugle Meiden."

"Steven really understands how to write for young people. His songs are catchy, and his scripts are clever and fun," said Narcissa Campion, managing director for Freelance Press, which moved its offices to Jamaica Plain this summer.

"And there's a really great need for creative writers to write for youth productions," added Campion. "Think of all the schools, summer camps, theater workshops, after-school programs, and community groups that put on shows."

With Large specializing in Shakespeare and Murray in musicals, when the two joined forces, "Twelfth Night" was a song-and-dance show just waiting to happen.

"I've often used pop music to transition between scenes when I adapt Shakespeare for the kids," said Large. "For example, right now we're rehearsing a hippie Central Park version of 'As You Like It' with '60s music."

"We just took it a step further with 'Twelfth Night,' " said Murray.

Or make that a giant leap further. As Murray and Large worked together through the summer of 2005, calypso music, a limbo scene, and even disco aerobics worked their way into their raucous script, which is set on a modern Caribbean resort island.

"The ritual was that I would put my kids to bed, drive over to Tom's house, and we would work until midnight or so, until the ideas got too ridiculous because of sleep deprivation," said Murray.

One idea that got nixed? An all-Madonna musical score.

Then after school started that fall, they stole moments over lunch or between classes to work out ideas.

"It was like we were artists-in-residence during that period. I'd run into Steve's classroom to ask him what style of song we should write that day, and we would trade ideas as we rushed by each other on the stairs," said Large.

Murray, who wrote the music, recorded demos of the songs as "The Steve Tones," a nickname for the digital recordings he made by singing all the voice parts and then using a computer program to alter his baritone to the right singing register.

"We posted Steve Tones' versions of the songs online and had the students download them to their MP3 players so they could learn them faster, and they just loved the Steve Tones," said Large.

Meanwhile, Large refined the book as they both worked on the lyrics.

What finally emerged for the spring debut was a 2 1/2-hour romp through numerous musical styles ranging from rap to pop to classic Broadway. If the play succeeds as Murray's previous work has, it will likely go on to be produced by many more schools.

"The idea was to make it fun for the kids, but I also see it as a serious expansion of the curriculum," said Large, who earned his master's degree in English literature at Harvard and takes his mission to teach Shakespeare seriously.

"For all the accommodations we make to make it accessible to the kids, both of us were determined to not dumb down the play."

Though most of the text is updated, direct lines from Shakespeare are worked seamlessly in so that the Bard's voice remains but is not overwhelming for young teens.

"The kids can handle the Shakespeare. They can handle it fine, and they can handle musical challenges," said Large. "They get excited and step up to the challenge. They don't know it's hard, so they just do it."

"That's the great thing about middle schoolers," said Murray. "They haven't quite put the word 'can't' in their vocabulary yet."

Nor have Large and Murray, who say they will collaborate again.

"We have no lack of ideas," said Murray. "It's the stuff our lunch conversations are made of."

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