‘Dani Girl’ musical deals with a young girl’s cancer in unexpected ways
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When Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman began to work on their first musical, ‘Dani Girl,’ four years ago, they knew the show would face a lot of challenges. Most new shows do. But this one also had what Dimond describes as ‘a touchy subject’ a 9-year-old’s struggle with leukemia.
“We were initially very nervous about how people would respond to it,” Dimond tells Culture Monster. “It’s not what you usually see in a musical.”
Dimond wrote “Dani Girl” after his younger cousin Danny’s battle with cancer. ‘I wanted to tackle exactly what was going on in this character -- who I changed to a girl -- in this girl’s mind.” He also wanted to offer a look at the world of ‘Danny and a lot of the kids he became close to in the hospital, kids who live more than I ever would.’
The result is neither weepy melodrama nor bleak tragedy. “It’s about a girl’s fantastical quest to get her hair back when she loses it to chemotherapy, to cancer. It’s about a girl who, through her imagination tries to cope with the reality of a serious situation. As kids often do, she does so in unexpected ways.”
Kooman, who composed the music, and Dimond, who wrote the lyrics and book, have tried to tell Dani’s story in unexpected ways as well. “When you are writing a musical about pediatric leukemia, if it’s what people expect it to be it would be a really awful experience to sit through,” Dimond says.
So they set out to create a piece that is surprising, and surprisingly funny, with a score that has “an upbeat pop-y feel. This play deals with very dark themes and ideas but there is a lot of levity and joy in it.”
That combination of darkness and light intrigued Marcia Seligson, co-founder of the Festival of New American Musicals, which is committed to supporting new works and building new (younger) audiences. This year’s three-month festival, which ends in August, involves dozens of shows around Southern California.
‘Dani Girl’ will appear in a free staged reading, part of an annual series presented by the festival in partnership with ASCAP, which provides funding through its foundation. Seligson and Michael Kerker, director of ASCAP’s musical theater division, selected the show. “I want to choose musicals that are edgy and not traditional,” says Seligson. “This is a tough piece, but very funny and spiritual in the broader sense of the term.” Richard Israel will direct a cast that consists of 11-year-olds Jenna Rosen and Michael William Arnold and stage veterans Michelle Duffy and Jason Graae.
The reading will begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood. Reservations are at (310) 827-2850.
The musical has had more than a dozen readings, workshops and productions around the country, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Workshop in New York.
‘Dani Girl’ will receive its professional premiere in Canada in January. Kooman, 26, and Dimond, 31, have been awarded a Jonathan Larson Grant from the American Theatre Wing, Besides ‘Dani Girl,’ they have written a song cycle and several other shows.
“People aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to produce a cancer musical,” says Dimond. “But we’ve had some terrific opportunities. And the audience response has been encouraging. We’re grateful to the festival and ASCAP for the opportunity to prove that something like this can be done.”
– Karen Wada
Top photo: Jenna Rosen during a rehearsal for ‘Dani Girl.’ Credit: Chris Murry. Bottom photo: Michael Kooman, left, and Christopher Dimond. Credit: Marty Kooman