You’ve only got 10 minutes: Can you put on a musical? They did, in contest performances at UCI

Cooper Howell and Tiana Okoye act in "Blind Fight" by Ehtan Carlson and Saidu Sinlah during a musical-writing competition called Showsearch at UCI's Claire Trevor Theatre on Saturday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

The winners of a national musical-writing competition for college and high school students were declared Aug. 29 after the six student finalists debuted their shows at UC Irvine.

Judges at the Showsearch performance in the Claire Trevor Theatre recognized “Middle School Election” by New York City high school students Sammy Grob, 17, and Asher Muldoon, 16, in the high school category.

“Middle School Election” told the story of a 12-year-old boy and girl competing to become class president.


“There’s a lot of pressure on kids to succeed and to work on something that’s career-oriented,” Sammy said. “That age also gets pushed younger and younger, so we wanted to write something that reflected that.”

In Asher and Sammy’s 10-minute musical, the characters run smear campaigns that include allegations of “Diet Coke soda addictions” and “getting caught kissing a fifth-grader.”

“Here, in the Park” by University of Wisconsin student Nicholas Connors, 22, won the college competition.

The show unfolded a tale of an investment banker turned painter who meets an aspiring writer struggling to launch her career in a bustling city.

“A lot of us have a goal we’re fixated on, and we think we need to achieve that goal in order to be successful,” Connors said. “For the female character, she’s trying to get her big story and get it out there, but she doesn’t realize there’s more to the process until she meets the male character.”

Other contenders traveled from points as close as Los Angeles and as far as Pittsburgh to watch their shows hit the stage.

Showsearch, created by the Culver City nonprofit Festival of New American Musicals, accepted submissions from across the country.

Thirty-eight entries from 16 states were received, said festival Executive Producer Bob Klein. Each musical was limited to 10 minutes.

Producers chose the top-six shows by the end of June and invited the young playwrights to premiere their musicals the last weekend of August at UCI.

But before they could pack their bags for Orange County, there was still a lot of work to do.

“After we picked the six finalists, we paired each team with a mentor, someone who’s written music professionally,” Klein said. “From there, the pairs worked on developing the musicals further, together, via phone, email and Skype.”

Producers paired Connors with Alan Zachary, a lyricist for Broadway musical comedy “First Date.”

Asher and Sammy’s mentor was David Zippel, who has helped compose song lyrics for Disney’s “Mulan” and “Hercules.”

“He’s written some of the best songs Disney has ever created,” Asher said. “What we learned from him was the importance of motifs and how to use the music and lyrics to reinforce that.”

Professional actors performed the parts in all six shows before a panel of judges — South Coast Repertory’s John Glore, Broadway producer Christopher Sepulveda and UCI drama department Chairman Daniel Gary Busby — and an audience of family and friends of the writers.

“All the shows were charming,” Busby said. “But [“Here, in the Park”] was the most emotionally mature. The message was about finding what your heart wants to do. It really grabbed at the heart strings.”

He also had high praise for “Middle School Election.”

“What I thought was exceptional ... was the amount of musical complexity it had,” Busby added. “It was advanced but still very fun for the audience.”

Winners of Showsearch were each awarded $2,000 in grants funded by Wells Fargo.

“Middle School Election” and “Here, in the Park” will receive performance spots in next summer’s New York Musical Theatre Festival.

“Musicals are becoming popular again,” Klein said. “For anyone who’s ever been inspired by works like ‘Wicked’ or ‘Frozen,’ Showsearch is a wonderful opportunity for kids who have ideas and want to write.”