Mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers might not sound like the starting point for an artistic achievement, but for Max Nussenbaum ’12 and Nat Leich ’12, whose musical Charlie Greengould Meets Himself goes up this weekend, greasy Late Night food was the perfect muse.
“Freshman year we used to hang out and improvise songs together,” Nussenbaum said. “Nat would play guitar, and I’d make up lyrics. One time, I wanted to go to Late Night but Nat wouldn’t stop playing the guitar, so I decided to make up a song about wanting to go to Late Night—”
At this point, Leich picked up a guitar and the two simultaneously burst into song.
“Late at night, I close my eyes and dream of sweet potato fries. Eggs that cost too many points, kids who’ve smoked too many joints. Max! Nat! I wanna go to Late Night!”
Although the two found enjoyment in writing such classics as “Late Night” and “Man Day”—“We are men, we are men, we are men/Our veins course with testosterone, we have no estrogen.”—they eventually pined for bigger things.
At the end of freshman year, Leich suggested they write a musical together. Nussenbaum was hesitant about the time commitment at first but finally agreed and began working on the plot over the summer.
The musical follows Charlie Greengould, a freshman in college struggling to figure out the social scene and secretly in love with his best friend, when he meets a cooler, more popular version of himself from a parallel universe. Nussenbaum based the story largely off his own experiences freshman year, although the parallel universe idea was more of an inspiration.
“I had this dream that I got assigned a roommate and he was like, ‘I’m you from a parallel universe’ and he was exactly like me except he had great abs,” Nussenbaum said. “He got tons of girls and it seemed like the only reason that I wasn’t getting any and he was getting tons was that he had great abs, because we had the exact same personality and looked exactly the same otherwise. But then it turned out he was a con man, and then the dream segued into this weird part where I hung out with a life-sized anthropomorphized version of my penis.”
By their sophomore year, the two were working on the musical regularly. Nussenbaum wrote the script and lyrics and Leich wrote the music.
While Nussenbaum has always had a passion for musicals—his iTunes library’s most commonly appearing artist is “Original Broadway Cast”—Leich said his motivation for creating a musical was largely to see songs he wrote performed.
“I really enjoyed writing songs but didn’t have much talent beyond that,” he said. “I couldn’t really perform them ever because I wasn’t a very good singer nor a very good instrumentalist, but I figured if I could write them, I could get talented people to perform them.”
The show finally started to come to life when the duo found Zack Sulsky ’13, the show’s musical arranger.
“The joke is, I can’t sing and Nat can’t really play piano that well, so he would write songs that he couldn’t play at full speed and I couldn’t sing,” said Nussenbaum. “So we literally couldn’t hear these songs until we brought in Zack.”
Sulsky, who transforms Leich’s melodies and choruses into pieces an entire band can play, confessed that he isn’t the biggest fan of musicals but said working on the performance has still been incredibly rewarding.
“It’s probably the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in and to see it actually come together is kind of insane,” he said. “I’m not as terrified as I would expect to be a few days before its opening.”
After months of perfecting songs, rushing to finish the script, and plenty of arguing, the time finally came for auditions. Nussenbaum and Leich said they were very lucky to end up with the cast they did—the students who made the final cut were ideal for their roles. The cast features Will Durney ’14 as protagonist Charlie, Michelle Agresti ’14 as his best friend and love interest Lila, Andrew Hopen ’13 as parallel-universe Charlie, Emily Hunt ’13 as another parallel universe Charlie, and David Preddy ’13 and Christine Treuhold ’13 as the ensemble.
Nussenbaum and Leich say that working with the cast has been the most rewarding part of their year-and-a-half, and the actors agree. Hopen said that working in a production entirely written and directed by students has been an enjoyable challenge.
“It makes it a lot harder in some ways, because we don’t have a lot of experience in certain areas,” he said. “But in other ways, you take a greater ownership of what you’ve created.”
Kelsey Vela ’12, the show’s stage manager, agreed.
“It makes the process a lot more flexible,” she said. “In past shows I’ve worked on, you have to work within rights—there are certain things you can and cannot do. With this musical, we have total control over the process and the product.”
From a spectator’s perspective, the process definitely seems to have worked. You might expect a show written, composed, and directed entirely by a few college students to be awkward and unpolished, but it’s not.
The plot is well paced and the show moves smoothly from scene to scene. When Charlie jumps through the portal and intermission arrives, it’s not exactly a welcome break—you’ll find yourself anxiously biting your nails as you wait to see Charlie’s fate.
All the actors bring their characters to life believably. Durney is completely relatable as the socially awkward Charlie. Hopen plays a perfect villain, easy to hate and yet still relatable. Agresti’s Lila is ditzy without becoming a caricature. Hunt brings an energy to her version of Charlie that adds a new dimension to the show.
And the songs are fantastic. Not only do they capture the mood of each scene and enhance the development of the characters, but they’re annoyingly catchy. The cast makes the songs both fun to listen to and fun to watch. Durney is particularly impressive—he draws the audience into the story when he sings.
The show is certainly more fun and entertaining than it is technically impressive—as Lighting Designer Gabe Finkelstein ’12 said, “This isn’t going to be a play for the pinky-stuck-out aristocratic theater-goer”—but it is undeniably an impressive feat for two college juniors who started out writing odes to Late Night.
“It’s better than I had imagined,” Nussenbaum said. “When you’re writing and editing for so long, you only see the flaws.”
“I’m definitely a little worried, a bit nervous,” Leich added. “But I really do think it’s going to be good.”