Women Wonders: Composer & Musical Director Carmel Dean Shares Her Theater Path & All That’s On Her Plate With “Mystic Pizza” & “The Notebook”

Despite my professional experience in pop music, “Un-Block The Music” has always expressed my lifelong love of theater. I am from Mt. Vernon, NY. I worked in NYC, but when I had my children, I had to move further into the suburbs to afford a house. I moved to Putnam County. Imagine my delight when a Broadway Show opened called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I obviously had to see it. And…I loved it. I guess I was always meant to meet the amazing Musical Arranger of that show Carmel Dean. While she has spent the bulk of the pandemic in her homeland of Australia, she has been vigorously working on projects expected to open all over the U.S. as live theater slowly comes back to life. Two projects sparking excitement in me are musicals spawned from two of my favorite movies, Mystic Pizza and The Notebook.

Classically trained, Carmel decided in high school that musical theater was where she belonged. Up until then, “I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, a chamber musician or accompanist. I hadn’t really worked with a lot of singers or even had much experience going to musicals or listening to shows,” but when she was exposed, she fell in love with the genre. “Theater is just more fun and collaborative. I didn’t want to be in the room by myself practicing scales for 8 hours every day. I rather be teaching singers, conducting an orchestra, attending dance rehearsals. It suits my personality better!” So, she focused in education on that.

In 2001, Carmel earned a scholarship and went to America to study at New York University (NYU) receiving her masters in musical theater writing. “While I was there, I met a lot of people in the Broadway industry. One of those people was William Finn (Tony winner for Falsettos) “He took me under his wing. I assisted him on smaller projects. Pretty soon after I graduated, he asked me to work on a show he was writing called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” That show ran for three years on Broadway and garnered several awards including two Tonys.

Carmel worked as a vocal arranger and associate music director on Spelling Bee. “I really didn’t know what it was to be a vocal arranger at the time. I was working closely with Bill getting the score ready; putting it together for the singers. He said, ‘I need you to write the harmonies for the six kids in the song’. One song at a time, I started writing vocal arrangements. It was very fortuitous. Vocal arranging is still one of my favorite things to do. I love it so much.”

Carmel was only 25 years old when she worked on Spelling Bee.  And, as a woman at that time…it was rare; still kinda rare. Anyway, Carmel is humble. “I was so fortunate that I fell into that show at the right time and that kicked off my Broadway career.” But, it was not all luck. “I was ambitious and worked hard!” And she was sure of her talent. “After Spelling Bee she worked on a show in Northern California. I was conducting a group of men that were probably 20 years my senior…It was a good lesson in being confident and knowing what I needed to know!”

Then came American Idiot. In “Un-Block The Music’s’ humble opinion, one of the grandma’s of rock jukebox musicals. While Rock of Ages opened around the same time, American Idiot was more similar to Mamma Mia in that it was centered around one band’s music. In this case it was Green Day. And, unlike Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages, the story was intense. And damn…if you love rock music this was the show for you. The audience went wild when I saw it.

How did Carmel get involved with American Idiot? After working on a couple of regional shows, “I met Tom Kitt at a concert.” Tom Kitt is one of the rock god orchestrators/music directors of Broadway having created Next To Normal (now Jagged Little Pill and upcoming Flying Over Sunset). “He asked if I wanted to work with him on a new project; an untitled punk project which ended up being American Idiot.” Of course, Carmel said “yes”. It took a couple of years to get to Broadway and it ended up being Carmel’s first credit as a music director.

American Idiot was pretty much snubbed by the Tonys though it did win best Scenic Design and Best Lighting. “It was strange because of the caliber of the team. It is not about the awards perse,” but The Tonys are an indicator of what the industry thinks,” Carmel said. Nevertheless, the soundtrack won a Grammy and Carmel performed with Green Day on the Awards show. (Google the performance…it is really exciting to watch…had a tremendous cast!!!)

All of this brings Carmel to Mystic Pizza and The Notebook. Both are based on 1980s movies. “I am working on a couple of shows that will come to fruition soon. All of the conversations now are about diversity on the team. We are looking at more interesting stories for people from all walks of life. If  theater goers see  themselves on the stage, it not only inspires them to see a show, but can help inspire them to do what they want to do in the world,” she said.

Mystic Pizza will open at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine this summer. Sandy Rustin adapted Amy Holden Jones’ original screenplay for the stage. The production will be directed by Casey Hushion and feature arrangements and orchestrations by Carmel.  “The producer acquired the rights to thirty 1980s pop songs from the time period. It has been a dream to work on it even though everything was accomplished over ZOOM!” Carmel explained.

Mystic Pizza is a snapshot of time centered around three girls trying to fix their relationships. Now, the story leans more in the direction of having them finding their identity in a small town with immigrants. We are not totally diminishing the relationships but trying to give the girls more autonomy,” Carmel said.

“I had a great time putting the score together. It’s tricky because you don’t want to completely change every song so that it is unrecognizable, but you have make the songs work for the story. It is a fine line to walk to make the pop songs theatrical,” Carmel said.

One of the exciting things about the Mystic Pizza premiere is that it will open at the Ogunquit in Maine. In April, the Ogunquit broke ground and began construction on a 25,000 square foot, steel structured, fully covered, open air performance venue on the South lawn of their campus. It is protected from lightning, heavy rain, and hail. “They are one of the first venues to be so pro-active about social distancing. The stage is massive!,” Carmel proclaimed.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater will stage the world premiere of the new musical The Notebook, based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks that inspired the popular film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams .Tony nominee Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, Rent) will direct. The Notebook features music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson and a book by The Cake playwright Bekah Brunstette.

That’s not all!!!! Carmel has been commissioned to write a musical about the groundbreaking 1989 Whitbread Round The World sailing race that consisted of the first all-female crew. The crew was led by a 24-year-old and the boat was called Maiden. Can’t wait for that.

Carmel is headed back to the U.S. from Australia this month. She told “Un-Block The Music,” that she hadn’t worked in Australia for the last 20 years, and it has been wonderful to be back there despite the pandemic. I certainly can’t wait to see what else comes next for her.

(Did I mention, that in addition to living in Putnam County, “Un-Block The Music” is based in the Town of Carmel. I believe we are destined to be friends… 😊

If you haven’t read my interview with Tom Kitt….check it out at https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/11/02/tony-winning-composer-orchestrator-tom-kitt-talks-jagged-little-pill-next-to-normal-how-his-wife-put-it-all-in-motion/

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