Mr. Brand Man
“Wonderettes” creator Roger Bean has made a name for himself, molding golden oldies into marvelous musicals
By Donnie Matsuda
These days, you can hardly walk into a regional theatre without being serenaded by the saccharine-sweet sounds of that ‘50s-and-‘60s girl group, The Marvelous Wonderettes. Their smash-hit musical (of the same name) topped the charts when it premiered in Los Angeles in 2006 and went on to a very successful Off-Broadway run in 2008. Along the way, the fabulous foursome has garnered many awards, a huge fan following, and even a holiday sequel (the merrily titled Winter Wonderettes). As the leader of this truly wonderful pack, Roger Bean has taken his initial success with the “Wonderettes” brand and made a career out of turning fading oldies into rocking jukebox musicals. He has created nearly a dozen shows, including The Andrews Brothers, Route 66, Why Do Fools Fall In Love?, Honky Tonk Laundry, Life Could be A Dream, and his newest musical, Summer of Love. Despite his busy writing and directing schedule, Bean had time to answer a few questions about his career as a playwright, his inspiration for the “Wonderettes,” and his plans for the future.
Donnie: Where did you grow up and how did you first get involved in theatre?
Roger: I grew up in Seattle, where I began my acting career playing Little Jack Horner in a local children's theater company. I remember doing something funny and getting a reaction (I only remember doing 'something,' not exactly what it was!), but I definitely remember making people laugh, and that was when the theater bug first bit me. I only dabbled in the theater growing up, doing a few shows here and there for my church during junior and high school.
Donnie: Did you always know you were destined for a career in the theatre as a playwright and a director?
Roger: When I got to college, I took a few acting classes, but realized I needed to be in charge, so I started to direct. Years later, when I needed to create work for myself, that's when I became a playwright. But I did write much earlier, with my mother, during my teen years. We would write plays utilizing already existing music (much like I do now), but we would rewrite the lyrics to very famous songs to suit our tastes. Not exactly legal, but I was young -- who knew any better? Besides, who would come after a young kid and his mother for rewriting music they used in their church play? Now, I still use already existing music, but I have many deals in place with music publishers and composers -- all very legit and 'grown-up,' I suppose.
Donnie: How did the idea of "The Marvelous Wonderettes" come about?
Roger: I wrote my first show for Milwaukee Rep called "Don't Touch That Dial!" and it was a big hit. They wanted another new show right away. I was home in Seattle visiting my family, and my mother happened to have an old scrapbook of hers out -- with pictures of her dressed as a cheerleader. She taught me the difference between a cheerleader and a songleader (my mother was a songleader - as are the Wonderettes), and talked about her being in a singing group in her high school, doing talent shows and things. That's really where the germ of the idea came from.
Donnie: Tell me about the creative process you went through writing and creating "The Marvelous Wonderettes." How long did it take? And any specific sources of inspiration or influence?
Roger: I spent about six months or so just listening to music -- getting into the period, the style, the groove of the era. After a while, the music that bubbles to the top becomes obvious, and I start piecing storylines together. Another piece of the puzzle is checking who the music publishers are for particular songs -- I've learned through the years to be careful about falling in love with certain songs and then getting my heart broken when I can't use them. "The Marvelous Wonderettes" took about nine months for the first version to be written (it started as a one-act), and then coming back to it on and off over numerous years. It premiered at Milwaukee Rep in 1999, came back in 2001 as an expanded two-act version, went through some legal rigmarole for a couple of years, and then finally opened in Los Angeles in 2006 to great acclaim. It's been a great roller-coaster ride ever since.
Donnie: Are you surprised at how popular the Wonderettes have become?
Roger: I always knew it hit a sweet spot in people's memories, but of course had no idea how large the fan base would become. It's a very special and unique show, and I feel very blessed to see so many people get tickled and moved by the show.
Donnie: What is the most common challenge you face each time you re-stage "The Marvelous Wonderettes?"
Roger: I think the challenge is to always remember that each audience is new -- we have to approach each production as if it's the first time discovering something. Since we already know it so well, we have to make it look as if it's brand new and fresh. That can be challenging, but when it works, it is incredibly rewarding.
Donnie: You have now created several musicals, each of which seems to have a slightly different bend to it. Is there a common thread or theme that runs through all your playwriting? Or is each show you create totally and completely independent from the next?
I always think that each show is different and unique. But friends think there is a common tone, a spirit of the heart that is infused in each one. I've been told I wear my heart on my sleeve in my shows, and I suppose that's kind of the common denominator.
Donnie: What do you hope audiences take away from your shows?
Roger: Pure joy.
Donnie: What advice do you have for emerging playwrights?
Roger: Keep thinking, keep writing. Even if it is just a little bit every day. Keep those muscles working.
Donnie: Any exciting plans for the future? Is there another musical up your sleeve, just waiting to be pulled out?
Roger: I'm working right now on another Wonderettes sequel, one that will take us into the 70s. Very groovy, with a touch of disco dust. I'm having a blast.
To learn more about The Marvelous Wonderettes, visit: www.marvelouswonderettes.com
To learn more about Wonderettes creator and director Roger Bean, visit: www.rogerbean.com
Or, take your own walk down memory lane and doo-wop with The Marvelous Wonderettes in person at the Birch North Park Theatre. San Diego Musical Theatre will be reuniting the New York cast for a three week engagement, from February 10-26, 2012. For more information, visit www.sdmt.org or call 858-560-5740.