SALT LAKE CITY — What happens when a Jewish neuropsychologist, a Latter-day Saint filmmaker and a British musician get together?
It sounds like the setup to a joke, but that unlikely combo is the creative force behind a new musical coming to Salt Lake City — a musical that the trio would eventually like to see end up on Broadway.
But all three of them know they’re a long way from the Great White Way.
“If you’re going to write a musical, write it from something that’s already done,” said Utah filmmaker Craig Clyde. “We didn’t do that. This is an original musical from guys nobody knows about.”
Except that’s not entirely true. The British musician lending his songwriting chops to the musical is Graham Russell of Air Supply — the composer behind soft-rock ballads like “All Out of Love” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” In many ways, taking a stab at a musical is a return to Russell’s roots. Before there was Air Supply, Russell was a musician in an Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I’ve always loved theater, and I’ve always wanted to write a theatrical production because my songs are very suited to them,” Russell told the Deseret News. “But I haven’t had the vehicle.”
He got a chance about five years ago while sitting in the Salt Lake City International Airport. While waiting for his flight, Russell met musician-turned-neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein, and the two struck up a conversation that quickly led to Goldstein pitching Russell a few ideas for a historical musical. It was the Cold War-era story involving a romance threatened by the Berlin Wall that got Russell’s attention.
“I thought it was a story that people should hear. I think it’s good to bring the Berlin Wall to a different generation,” Russell said. “I’m sure they don’t hear about it in school, but I think it’s something everyone needs to know about. It’s kind of like the first guy to step on the moon. People need to know that, and they need to know about the Berlin Wall, how one country built a wall to separate the same people.”
Not long after that chat in the airport, Russell began working on the musical, titled “A Wall Apart.” Air Supply keeps a busy touring schedule with 100-plus shows a year, but during Russell’s spare time, he would return to his home in Utah — a 1,120-acre property in Kamas — to read the scenes Goldstein and his longtime friend and collaborator Clyde had written, and compose music.
He wrote 16 songs in two months.
“He’s known as the author of Air Supply songs … kind of soft-pop-rock songs, but I gotta tell you, the guy’s brilliant and he can write in any genre,” Goldstein said. “He’s just an amazing person in terms of his ability to create melodies. … He can hear the orchestration even when he’s playing a single guitar.”
They workshopped the production in Salt Lake City before taking it to the New York Musical Festival in the summer of 2017. There, a New York Times critic wrote that although the second half still seemed to be a “work in progress,” “A Wall Apart” was “a smart, high-energy exercise in idealism, a rock musical with love and politics on its mind.”
Taking the feedback from New York, Russell, Goldstein and Clyde went back to Utah and continued reshaping their musical and workshopped it again last fall. Now, the new-and-improved musical gets put to the test in Salt Lake City when it runs Aug. 15-Sept. 7 at the Grand Theatre.
“In New York people cried, and they’re a pretty tough crowd,” Clyde said with a laugh. “After New York I realized there was too much politics in it, so I rewrote it. We’ve rewritten it like 60 times — we’re rewriting right now. It’s not about ego, it’s about the best show you can put on. It’s a lot better than it was and people liked it in New York, so I think they’ll like it here.”
‘A Wall Apart’
During a Tuesday night rehearsal at Salt Lake Community College, 10 performers formed a circle around Russell, harmonizing to one of the composer’s songs from “A Wall Apart.” Standing tall at 6 and a half feet, Russell tapped his foot to the music and encouraged the singers.
“Give it some real energy; it’s like your life depends on it!” he exclaimed.
Because the story of “A Wall Apart” is a matter of life or death. Born and raised during wartime Berlin, brothers Hans, Kurt and Mickey must decide where to make their home before the border closes — a not-so-easy decision for Kurt, the middle sibling who has one brother firmly rooted in Soviet-controlled East Berlin and a woman he loves in democratic West Berlin.
Taking place over the 28 years the Berlin Wall was erected, “A Wall Apart” uses this trio of brothers sharply divided by politics but united by blood to represent the toll the Berlin Wall had on families and relationships — at least 140 people died along the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989.
While in Berlin with Air Supply last December, Russell made a point of visiting some of the places he’d come to know through the musical. He’d been to Berlin a few years before and stood about 30 feet above Adolf Hitler’s bunker, and walked through memorial sites that, although bright with daffodils and tulips, represented a darker time in history. But somehow, it all meant more to him this time around.
“I knew where to go,” he said. “I went to a lot of the places in the script that are real. It was like a history lesson.”
This year marks 30 years since the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989. The Salt Lake production of “A Wall Apart” comes about three months before that anniversary, and for Russell, the musical’s storyline that centers on issues of family separation and a border carries an added significance today during President Donald Trump’s administration.
“There’s certainly a comparison with the wall that our politicians — or one of them — wants to build,” Russell said. “But I’m a big believer that walls divide. … We need to unite, not be divided. … I think with musicals there’s always a message relevant to current times, and I think there’s a great message in this musical for now, but that wasn’t by design. It just happened.”
For Goldstein, who began developing the musical’s story several years ago, United States politics was far from his mind.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with Trump. It’s a different kind of wall,” he said. “When I thought of the story 10 years ago, (that) was way before that kind of a wall. I don’t make any connections between the two.”
But all creators agree that it’s the family relationships and love story in “A Wall Apart” that form the heart of the show and drive the production home.
“It’s about sacrifice … it’s about love and it’s about hanging in there — patience,” Clyde said. “I personally believe that those are good values that you don’t see much of anymore.”
‘Broadway’s a strange animal’
But how will the story hold up in Salt Lake City?
Before landing at the Grand Theatre, the creators of “A Wall Apart” struggled to find a venue that would take a chance on a new production with original music and an original story, a production that would have zero familiarity with Utah theatergoers. But if all goes well in Utah, the creators can move on to the next step — a step they hope will bring them closer to Broadway.
“It’s a fickle business. Nobody knows what’s going to make money. … It’s hard to know,” Goldstein said. “We need to find an angel investor or a number of initial investors who invest in theater and understand that their return doesn’t happen in the first year. … It probably will have to go to a bigger regional theater … and then hopefully come to New York. That’s the goal.”
The way Clyde sees it, the odds of achieving that goal are “10 million to 1,” but the fact that a theater in Salt Lake City has given the show a chance for him holds promise enough.
“I’m surprised we’ve gotten this far,” he said.
But for Russell, a famed musician who still vividly remembers struggling to get record companies to hear his Air Supply demo many years ago, he knows better than to give up all hope.
“I think the people are going to enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve learned that musicals take about 10 years. … But I’d like to see this eventually get to Broadway — not for my gratification, just because I think it deserves to be there. Broadway’s a strange animal, but I think it would be a great success.”
If you go ...
What: “A Wall Apart”
When: Aug. 15-Sept. 7
Where: Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St.
How much: $12-$23