Last spring, Roslyn High School student Melissa Goldstein was assigned a project in Scott Segal’s 11th grade English class to write a few songs based on the Sherwood Anderson book “Winesburg, Ohio.”
Last week, the project came to its fruition, as Goldstein, now a senior, directed the school’s Royal Crown Players theater program in a musical production of the coming-of-age tale of a boy growing up and leaving his hometown – renamed “Winesburg” – that she adapted for the stage.
“This was the first time I had a student do a complete show that was special enough to put on,” said Brad Frey, the Royal Crown Players’ creative director.
Frey said that in his 30 years at Roslyn High School, the Royal Crown Players has done two student-written productions: 1988’s “Whammy,” about the music industry, and 2010’s “Air Heart,” about Amelia Earhart.
“It’s not very common that RCP does student-written work, in fact, it hardly ever happens,” Frey said. “She put herself into a very stressful position to conceive the show, and that’s a very tough thing for a senior in high school. She has a lot of ambition and a real vision to do the kind of work she’s done.”
Last August, Goldstein went to Frey’s home studio to record demo versions of the songs, and he suggested she and Segal adapt the book as a musical.
Goldstein, who sits on the Royal Crown Players executive board as its social chair, began writing the script in early September for potential production in the spring, but Segal dropped off the project once the school year began.
For its fall production, the Royal Crown Players did a production of “Legally Blonde,” with Goldstein in the lead role of Elle Woods, which had been made famous by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 film version.
All the while, Goldstein continued work on “Winesburg,” but when it became clear the script would not be ready for rehearsals to begin, Frey replaced it with a production of “A Chorus Line” and created a third production for later in the year, putting the budding showrunner in charge.
“With RCP, we miss it once it’s over, so when I said, ‘Hey, I want to do this musical,’ everyone was all, ‘Sweet, I’m down,” she said.
Goldstein set her version of “Winesburg” in the present day, with high school-aged characters using modern technology and worrying about where they would go to college. Because “Winesburg, Ohio” is a loose collection of individual short stories that tell an over-arching story, Goldstein said she tried to tell each short story through a different song and connect them with dialogue.
“I really wanted the songs to carry the show, as opposed to scenes and dialogue,” Goldstein said.
A lifelong musician, Goldstein wrote each song’s lyrics and melody using guitar chord progressions, and Royal Crown Players recruited the services of sophomore Scott Finer to complete the song arrangements.
“His work is brilliant, and it’s made Melissa’s songs even better,” Frey said.
Goldstein said she had never written a script before, but directing “was the most challenging and most stressful thing I’ve probably ever done in my entire life.”
During rehearsals, Goldstein would often rewrite lines to achieve the most organic conversations possible.
“I wanted the actors to really be into it and be as authentic as possible, as if the kids in the story were us,” Goldstein said. “We tried to get the dialogue right down to how you would naturally react to someone saying these things to you to really capture the way people talk.”
Having served as the show’s writer, director and executive producer, and having undertaken such responsibilities for the first time in her theater career, Goldstein chose not to star in “Winesburg.”
“I figured between writing, directing and producing the music, it would lessen my credibility as the show’s director if I were to also act,” Goldstein said. “It would feel weird for me to be starring in it and also tell people what to do, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to direct myself anyway.”
Now just as experienced behind the scenes as she is in the spotlight, Goldstein will attend the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, where she will study music business and songwriting in working toward a career in the recording industry.
“I really learned a lot about myself and how to deal with people [by working on “Winesburg”],” Goldstein said. “I didn’t want to be a dictator. It wasn’t my show, it was our show.”