- Michael Schoenfeld
When you think of a world-premiere musical, with songs by a composer boasting multi-platinum sales success, Salt Lake City probably isn't the first location that comes to mind. For the creators of A Wall Apart, however, it's an obvious place, because it's home.
With a book by Utah residents Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde, and songs by Air Supply co-founder Graham Russell—a 25-year resident of Summit County—A Wall Apart tells a story opening in 1961 Berlin of three brothers, orphaned during World War II, who find their relationships strained and tested by the political upheaval in their divided country. It also evolves into a Romeo & Juliet-esque love story, spanning the history of Berlin Wall-era Germany.
For Goldstein and Clyde, this show is only the most recent in a professional partnership that spans more than 40 years. They met when Goldstein, a neuropsychologist, began a regular stint on a KSTU-TV talk show hosted by Clyde. They started collaborating on screenplays for family-friendly movies, but as Goldstein says, "I started keeping a file of movies we wanted to make but couldn't afford to make, that would take $50-$80 million to make. And this was on my list of stories."
Russell entered the picture four years ago, when Goldstein was playing occasionally in a band with Russell's one-time bass player. Russell had previously written some songs for an off-Broadway musical that had closed after two weeks, and he was disappointed with the show. Goldstein said he could come up with a better story to make use of Russell's talents, and showed him his list of ideas. A Wall Apart jumped out to him. "I thought the premise was really interesting," Russell says, "with two people on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. I was just pulled in by that. I'd like to see how that story develops."
In May 2015, Goldstein and Clyde began working on the script, in their familiar style of Goldstein focusing on the story elements, and Clyde handling character and dialogue. Yet as experienced as they were at writing screenplays, they discovered that a theatrical script was uniquely challenging. "I've done 22 films as a writer-director," Clyde says, "and this is much harder in some ways." Goldstein adds, "I don't think there's any writing where you have to be as precise."
Russell, too, acknowledges that writing songs for a musical required stretching different creative muscles than writing the kind of stand-alone pop songs for which he is best known. "I have to push the story further along with music," he says. "It's very different from a pop or rock and roll song, where you have a free canvas. Here, you're more confined, and every note carries a weight."
With Goldstein and Clyde crafting scenes and sending them to Russell for songs to be added, the first draft of A Wall Apart was completed in about four months. But as hard as the process for writing a musical might be, getting one produced is even harder. "With the average show, it takes 3-5 years for it even to get seen," Clyde says. "The average cost is $10 million. It's incredibly expensive."
The development process, then, has involved multiple steps. In 2017, a stripped-down version of A Wall Apart played for a week at the New York Music Festival, serving as a kind of "proof of concept;" four additional songs have been added since then, along with story revisions to bring the focus more on the family than on the politics. They've also done staged readings locally, before the Grand Theatre offered the production its season-opening slot. Yet even as they continue tweaking the script throughout rehearsals, Goldstein and Clyde look at this premiere as just another step in that development process.
"This production is going to lose money, even if we sell out," Goldstein says. "The idea is to put it on in such a way that anyone who comes to see it"—including potential "angel" investors—"can envision what it's going to be."
All three co-creators, however, are excited to be bringing this part of the long journey—the first full production of A Wall Apart—to Utah audiences first. "Utah and Salt Lake City is a very cultural place," Russell says. "We wanted to do it here to tell everyone, 'Hey, it is possible to create a show in Utah.' That's a big thing that we're very proud of."
"I think Utah audiences very much value and appreciate live theater," Goldstein says. "They generally support it well, whether it's a big touring show or smaller local companies."
And they can support the show even knowing that a next step, with other fine-tuning, might be down the road for A Wall Apart. "At the moment I love it," Goldstein says of the version that will play at the Grand. "When I saw the New York production, I loved it. For me, it's 'can I make it better?' Yes. Am I happy with where it is? Yes. You can be happy with where you are, but know you can make it better."