Is teenage pregnancy something to sing about?
On Aug. 30, Weston Playhouse Theater Company (WPTC) will present the world premiere of Pregnancy Pact, a pop-rock musical with music by Julia Meinwald and book and lyrics by Gordon Leary.
Rena Murman, former WPTC education director, said Pregnancy Pact was inspired by the sensationalized news story of an epidemic of teen pregnancies at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts several years ago, and concerns a group of teenage girls who decided to become single mothers together.
It’s all about “the motivations and dynamics of a group of high school girls who [at the same time] decide to get pregnant,” Murman said.
“Pregnancy Pact tells the story of 15-year-old Maddie who is devoted to her three best friends and they are to her,” she said.
“So when Brynn gets pregnant, the friends all plan to have children and raise them together in their dream of a perfect life,” she added.
“Their pact grows as other girls find out and want in. The bubble finally bursts when the teenagers’ secret is revealed, leaving each of the girls facing the hard realities of love, responsibility, and growing up.”
It is the second musical to receive its world premiere at the Weston Playhouse. The production will be directed by Joe Calarco, best known for his adaptation/direction of Shakespeare’s R & J, which ran for a year Off-Broadway and has become the longest running adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in New York history. It won the 1998 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Special Achievement in Theatre (akin to Off-Broadway’s Tony Award).
Pregnancy Pact will feature a cast of young actors, including Caitlin Kinnunen of Spring Awakening and Jed Resnick of the first national tour of Rent and the Broadway cast of Avenue Q.
Last year, Pregnancy Pact won WPTC’s 2011 New Musical Award. This is an award Weston created in 2007 “to provide new writers accessible means of producing a demo recording, to develop the unique outlet and opportunity for new writers in the theatre.”
As part of the award, the Weston Playhouse had provided Meinwald and Leary with a stage director, music director, and five Equity actors for a three-day Vermont residency to rehearse selections from a new musical.
The musical was subsequently selected for workshop at the prestigious Yale Institute for Music Theatre last June, culminating with a public reading at New Haven’s Off-Broadway Theatre as part of the 2011 International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
However, only this year at Weston Playhouse is Pregnancy Pact being transformed from workshop incarnations into its first full-scale world-premiere theatrical performance.
Meinwald and Leary have been working on this project since 2009, but this week will be the first time they will see their work staged and performed complete in front of a live audience.
Weston Playhouse Resident Producing Director Steve Stettler said that, unlike many new shows, Pregnancy Pact was virtually ready to go when the authors arrived this summer in Weston.
“The show didn’t need a lot of tweaking,” he said. The authors, however, are eager to get it just right, and are still working to smooth out transitions and making everything flow together.
Calarco was brought into the project only four or five months ago, although he has had many years experience working with new musicals.
“I have worked on a lot of new shows, mostly in readings,” he said. “Workshop readings are great, but there is a limit to what you can figure out in a rehearsal room with actors and a piano. You ultimately really need a staged production in front of an audience to understand how a work plays.”
He said Pregnancy Pact’s script “was really strong as we came into rehearsals. And I found that I loved the work more every day I rehearsed the musical. I have fallen in love with the characters. Some may think teenage pregnancy is a dangerous topic, but Meinwald and Leary bring us so close to understanding these characters that it is no longer provocative or scary.”
The authors became interested in the topic almost immediately after Time magazine ran the now-infamous article, Pregnancy Boom at Gloucester High, in its June 18, 2008 issue.
“As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies — more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year,” according to the Time article. “Nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.”
Murman interviewed the authors and shared these quotes about the how they became interested in the story:
“When we first heard about the alleged pact in Gloucester we were just as fascinated by the story as it seemed like the rest of the world was. As more details emerged and made it clear that an actual pact probably never existed, we were still intrigued that the public so quickly believed it could happen. Since the world seemed quick to believe and condemn these girls, we began writing the show to explore the human side of the story and try to understand what might cause a real pact to happen.”
However, Pregnancy Pact is not a “docu-musical” (if such a genre even exists), but a fictional re-imagining of the premise of the actual event.
According to Murman, the authors said, “the biggest challenge in working with any real-life event is navigating the line between fact and fiction. A writer always wants to feel true to the source, but it’s also important to tell the best story you can. With our show, we chose to stay away from the true story surrounding the scandal. The world and story of our show is entirely fictional.
“Our intent in writing the show was not to judge the decisions the girls make. Since we approached the story as an exploration rather than an explanation, we chose not to build any kind of moral judgment into our telling of it.”
A teaching moment
This does not mean that the authors or Weston Playhouse are shying away from the implications of a very real teenage pregnancy epidemic in our country.
“The WPTC is excited to present this new work,” Murman said, “but at the same time encourages parents, teachers, and all theatre-goers to consider that the play includes sexually explicit language and scenarios, as well as profanity. It may shock, it may offend, but we hope it also inspires honest and frank discussion and opens the door to better communication on a vital and sensitive subject.”
Weston Playhouse is attempting to reach reach the very group that is the subject of the play by inviting the area’s high school classrooms to come to special performances of Pregnancy Pact.
They are helping prepare this audience by sending participating schools “Pregnancy Pact: Teachers Guide,” which broaches everything from Time’s original article, through statistics on teenage pregnancy, interviews with the authors, a description of the musical as social commentary, and a list of discussion questions groups can consider after they have seen the play.
But director Calarco thinks it would be a mistake to limit the appeal of the play to mere social commentary.
“Teenage pregnancy is the launching-off pad for many things that Pregnancy Pact considers,” he said. “The musical is about learning life’s very hard lessons, about loneliness and family, about wanting to love something and to be loved, and in the end, about how a group of teenagers are able to find family amongst themselves.”