New country musical will have regional premiere at Human Race

Tony nominee for Idina Menzel musical wrote the book for Dayton’s “Play it By Heart”

Music can take us places emotionally that words alone can’t. It can make the spirit soar.

—Brian Yorkey, playwright, lyricist, and theatre director

It seems that Pulitzer and Tony award winner Brian Yorkey is making news everywhere these days — including in Dayton.

Tonight, Yorkey will be in the audience at Radio City Music Hall for the Tony ceremonies — he’s been nominated for Broadway’s Idina Menzel musical “If/Then” for which he wrote the book and lyrics. Sting will be on stage to preview another Yorkey musical entitled “The Last Ship.”

The last time the well-known playwright attended the Tonys — in 2009 — he and songwriting partner Tom Kitt took home the coveted award for Best Original Score for their ground-breaking rock musical, “Next to Normal.” Yorkey was also nominated for Best Book for a Musical that year and the show earned a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“I was incredibly nervous that first time, a little bit like a deer in the headlights,” recalls Yorkey who lives in New York and Los Angeles. “I was just trying to stay upright and coherent. This time is every bit as special, but we don’t have any expectations to win, we just appreciate being nominated. It doesn’t stop being a real honor. “

Tony nominees, he explained, get just two tickets to the ceremony. Last time around, he took his mom who was understandably very excited.

“I was up for two awards and I lost the second one,” Yorkey said. “My mother was well brought up and very elegant, but when I lost I heard her swear under her breath.”

Yorkey in Dayton

Yorkey has been a familiar figure in the Miami Valley in recent weeks; he’s been in town to tweak the script for the regional premiere of the new country musical, “Play It by Heart.” The show, “about heartbreak, forgiveness and healing,” opens Thursday, June 12, and runs through July 6 at the Human Race Theatre Company.

The new musical, which features new songs from the Nashville sound to New Country, has a proud history in Dayton. It began with a residency for the writers in 2009 and continued with a reading that was part of the 2010 Musical Theatre Workshop program. Songs are by David Spangler, Jerry Taylor and R.T. Robinson, Yorkey wrote the book.

The plot focuses on a country music dynasty at a time when the career of the family’s superstar — Jeannine Jasper — is drawing to close and her little sister, Jamie Lynn, is being thrust into the spotlight. A scandalous secret threatens to tear the family apart.

Kevin Moore, the company’s producing artistic director, has been intimately involved with the show since the get-go and directs the 10-member cast in the current production. A huge fan of “Next to Normal,” Moore admits he was originally a bit star-struck at the idea of working with a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner.

“But from the first moment, I knew Brian was just a great guy who also happens to be extremely talented,” says Moore now. “His sincerity on the page is a mirror of his own being.”

Moore says York has the ability to write full, rich, three-dimensional characters.

“Characters in musicals sing because they reach a point where speaking words just isn’t enough, and Brian is a master of getting them to that important “leaping off” point,” he explains.

Lifelong connection

At the moment, one of those important characters is played by Sharva Maynard, who portrays the stage mother, Naomi. Maynard has known Yorkey since he was a teenager in the 1980s and both were involved at Seattle’s Village Theatre. When an early version of “Play It by Heart” was staged in 2005, Maynard originated the role of Naomi.

Her early memories of Yorkey are those of a talented kid extraordinaire, a lightening rod for many of the theater’s projects — writing, directing and doing all-round duty.

“He is extraordinarily gifted and has a spot-on sense of humor,” says Maynard, who says her friend has an eye for detail and timing and is a joy to work with.

“As a writer he is always open to an actor’s input,” she explains. “If a line isn’t working or you’re having trouble with it, he feels it’s the writer’s job to fix it. He trusts the actor’s instincts. He has the biggest heart and the smallest ego of anyone I can think of, given his gifts, and I am in awe. An inspirational human being.”

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