California Teacher’s Musical Headed to New York
By Helen Yoshida
When she isn’t teaching Benita Scheckel, a choir and drama teacher at Blair School in Pasadena, CA, writes musicals. Her musical “Bend in the Road,” a 2013 Next Link Project based on L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, will be performed at the tenth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival this July.
Scheckel, a member of the California Teachers Association, co-wrote “Bend in the Road” with pianist, vocalist and friend Michael Upward, toured with an opera company before becoming a full-time teacher. During the tour, Upward asked if she had ever written song lyrics.
“I told him ‘no I hadn’t but I’m sure could’ and he told me about his idea to write a musical for Anne of Green Gables,” recalls Sheckel. ”After we wrapped that tour we got together on our next tour in San Diego and wrote half of the musical. We realized we had something special when we were done.”
Scheckel and Upward received positive feedback from a reading they put on for friends and family and decided to send their work to the Pasadena Playhouse. Staff at the Playhouse loved the musical and scheduled performances at the Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre. During each performance, Scheckel and Upward sat in the back of the auditorium and watched the audience members’ excitement.
“I didn’t realize how many Anne of Green Gables fans there are out there. People came out of the woodwork to tell us it was their favorite book. People were so excited.”
When her students became interested in the musical, the Pasadena Educational Foundation provided buses for 180 middle school students from Pasadena Unified to see two free matinee performances. Yet Scheckel worried about what they would think.
“I was concerned because many of our students have never seen a live theatrical performance,” she said. “The population is very diverse and I was worried that the students might not connect with a piece about all white people living in 1896. But the students loved the show and followed every moment of the plot.”
Despite the musical’s success, Scheckel was scared that it would be short-lived, but it was extended for a week.
Scheckel and Upward talked to their producer about submitting their work as a Next Link Project, the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s primary writer service program, and she put together all of the submission material including production stills, CDs, manuscript and reviews.
Then, they waited.
At the end of February they found that their musical had been selected as one of the ten new musicals for the 2013 Next Link Project. Upon hearing the news Scheckel was both excited and scared.
“As drama teachers we’re planning and we’re controlling; we’re involved with every part of the production and it’s different when you give up that control,” she said. “This is my 14th year in education and it’s a little bit scary now because this is bigger than me. We brought on a Broadway director, and we put together our New York team. It’s ultimately a big machine and it’s moving.”
Key to Scheckel’s success as a playwright is her teaching, which she says helps her stay connected to the youthful energy that Anne embodies, to say exactly what is on her mind and to look for “kindred spirits” along the way.
“In my classroom every day, I meet students who struggle with fitting in. Some students are living in group homes while others may have no home at all,” Scheckel explains. “Others may be dealing with Down Syndrome or severe autism. Yet together, we form a community where we can sing and dance and celebrate just being here. Anne’s story of finding a family and acceptance in a community is a theme my students have helped to teach me. And with them, I have found my own extended family where I am challenged to think better, do better and be better every day.”
Scheckel believes each new endeavor she’s approached in her life has informed the next. She is an advocate for jumping into projects that spark her interest, being open to many opportunities and casting a lot of lines.
“Being able to inspire children to love the arts, getting to sing daily with so many beautiful young faces and then getting to write a musical and take it to New York this summer is a full rich life and I am excited to see where the next bend in the road takes me.”