No one would foresee that within 23 years, all three musicals would enjoy Broadway revivals and that young Blaemire and Gardiner — who had been pals since their high school years in Maryland — would be musical theatre writers with a Broadway show of their own, Glory Days.
Their original four-actor musical about high school buddies reuniting a year after graduation begins previews April 22 and opens May 6 at Circle in the Square Theatre following a well-reviewed world premiere earlier this year at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Signature's artistic director Eric Schaeffer again directs.
Composer-lyricist Blaemire, 23, and librettist Gardiner, 24, said that Glory Days — which plays out over 90 minutes of real time, set on the football field of the characters' old high school — doesn't try to tackle all The Big Issues of all human experience. The writers are serving a slice of life — life as they know it, drawing on less than a quarter-century of experience.
The hope, Schaeffer and his writers told Playbill.com, is that a diverse audience will recognize and remember the painful, hopeful coming-of-age that is documented in Glory Days.
"One of the things Nick and I were really trying to do with this show was capture what it's like to be a member of our generation, and to talk about the things that we love about it, and also to talk about the things that annoy us," Gardiner said at an April 10 press event that introduced the college-graduate writers to the New York theatre community. Blaemire explained that the show is "a commemoration of our friendship and the friends we've had and lost between high school and college — and what happens when you're a kid, and then you realize that you're not anymore."
Glory Days features Steven Booth, Andrew C. Call, Adam Halpin and Jesse JP Johnson, who created their roles at Signature. All freshly scrubbed, they might have stepped out of a production of Altar Boyz; Johnson and Call, in fact, are alumni of that pop musical.
Booth (of Avenue Q in Las Vegas) plays Will, a young writer and the "glue" of the foursome. The show is an ensemble piece, but Will's voice is heard in most of the 18 songs of the score, which flirts with the kind of pop that would make fans of John Mayer and Jason Mraz sit up and listen.
Both Blaemire and Gardiner said that they have always had one foot in theatre and another in popular music. Both were child actors and continue to act — Blaemire is in the ensemble of Broadway's Cry-Baby, Gardiner has Signature Theatre credits. Both listened to their own kind of music when they were growing up: Gardiner liked more traditional show tunes and Sinatra, while Blaemire favored the Beatles, Springsteen and Hair.
Gardiner said that he and his twin brother Matt, who is the assistant director for Glory Days, "used to go down into the basement and put on records of The Wiz or Cats and basically re-create it. We definitely grew up loving musical theatre."
As teenagers, both were also keenly aware of Jonathan Larson's Rent, which sought to merge a pop-rock sound with shapely, crafty, serious-minded storytelling. When Blaemire and Gardiner were on the edge of being teenagers in 1996, Rent won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award.
Like Larson before him, Blaemire (pronounced "BLAY-my-er") wondered why pop music and theatre storytelling couldn't co-exist more often.
"Obviously people have been doing this for a long time," Blaemire said. "We're not the first people to be writing a pop musical. I remember hearing Rent and thinking, 'Oh my God, these people are singing like they speak — and there's no pretense. If that was possible…why don't we just give it a shot.'"
In the summer after his first year attending the University of Michigan, Blaemire wrote a couple of songs ("After All" and "Open Road") inspired by a painful breakup with friends, and played them for Gardiner, a student at the University of Maryland. Blaemire had also sketched out a treatment for a musical about high school buddies who find themselves on different paths following graduation. He sought Gardiner's advice, and a collaboration sparked.
Why did Blaemire choose Gardiner as his writing partner? "He's brilliant, and he'll never tell you that 'cause he's also the most humble dude in the whole world," Blaemire said. "He and I had been performing together in high school, and I just knew he was so politically minded and socially aware in a way that was articulate… He's so smart and so thoughtful, and caring about letting me have my space as a musician and blending our voices so the people who are talking are the four guys and not us."
A new musical — then called Ass Backwards — was born.
"The original script had 150 'F' words," Gardiner admitted. "It was always [about] four guys, and it always happened on a football field in real time. It's matured without losing the heart."
Both writers made sure that there was a story to ground, support and inspire the songs. They were not interested in writing a collection of random pop songs and jamming them into a plot. Gardiner said that stripped of its songs, Glory Days could "probably" be a solid dramatic play.
Gardiner said he and his collaborator were always thinking, "How do we keep the plot moving forward?" and "How do we ink-in and deepen the characters?"
The storytelling got sharper after Schaeffer — the Helen Hayes Award-winning director who has revived Sondheim shows to acclaim in DC — embraced the project. Schaeffer has staged Broadway's Putting It Together and London's The Witches of Eastwick, among many other plays and musicals.
Every summer Schaeffer teaches a master class called Overtures at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Three years ago, Blaemire and Gardiner were students there and shared some of their work with him (including a song called "Open Road," which remains in the show).
The writers and their pals later presented their formative musical to Schaeffer in his home, and he was moved. He helped guide them over the next two years until he offered them a world-premiere slot at Signature.
But the title Ass Backwards had to go, he said. Schaeffer couldn't market the title to his subscriber crowd, so Glory Days became the marquee name.
What was the most important note Schaeffer thinks he gave the writers? "To 'keep it real,'" Schaeffer said. "It feels almost like a play with these great songs in it. The characters are so real, and there's nothing superficial or overblown or out of proportion…it's this wonderful gem…"
Blaemire said, "The best note that he ever gave us was 'Don't try to be too smart. This is a raw piece, a slice of life, it's not about making a statement.' The term that we throw around is 'accidental profundity.' These guys say things that are big, that are kind of life observations, but they don't realize they're saying them, and so we can't realize it either."
The Signature production received a rave review from the Washington Post's respected critic Peter Marks (and from other scribes), and it became a surprise regional hit — and managed to lure a younger demographic to Signature in the process, Schaeffer said.
"Rehearsing it with six guys, I felt like I was at a frat party for five weeks," Schaeffer said. "It took me back to my college days."
He later admitted with a laugh, "It made me feel old."
Glory Days also attracted emerging Broadway producers John O'Boyle and Ricky Stevens from New York, who snapped it up and (with producing partners) aimed it for Broadway sooner rather than later.
With a sudden Broadway spotlight on them, Blaemire and Gardiner are sure to attract speculation in the fan community. The writers are avowed members of the internet generation (they even have a website dedicated to their collaboration, www.jamesandnick.com) but have avoided looking at Broadway-related internet message boards, where anonymous and sometimes ignorant observations are fired off. The arrows can be from Cupid, or can be poison-tipped.
Gardiner said, "[Nick is] good friends with [Avenue Q writer] Jeff Marx, and one of the first things Jeff told us was, 'Do not read those chat boards — just stay off,' because you don't know what agenda somebody might have on one of those things. Me and Nick have basically sworn it off."
For more information about the Broadway production of Glory Days, visit www.GloryDaysBroadway.com.
Circle in the Square Theatre is at 235 W. 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
The producers officially bill Glory Days as "the story of four best friends who reunite a year after high school graduation, only to find how much they have grown apart. As they attempt to understand each other's differences, they soon realize that nothing can compare to the glory days of high school when life was simpler. Set to a vibrant score, Glory Days is a witty, unflinching look at four guys who refuse to be defined by generational stereotypes as they struggle to find their place in the world."
The creative team also includes James Kronzer (scenic design), Sasha Ludwig-Siegel (costume design), Mark Lanks (lighting design) and Peter Hylenski (sound design). Vocal arrangements are by Nick Blaemire and Jesse Vargas. Arrangements and orchestrations are by Jesse Vargas.
Glory Days is produced by John O'Boyle, Ricky Stevens, Richard E. Leopold and Lizzie Leopold, and Max Productions in association with Signature Theatre.
Glory Days will be ineligible for 2007-08 Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards since the April 22 first preview is after the respective organizations' nominating deadlines. The show's May 6 opening night date meets the Tony Award eligibility requirement for this season.
Tickets are $97.50 (includes $1.50 facilities fee) and are available from Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, online at www.telecharge.com, or in-person at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
Subject to availability, a limited quantity of $26.50 student rush tickets will be sold on the day of the performance, in-person at the box office only (limit of two tickets per person, with valid student ID).