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Mad for musicals, now he writes them

Doug Hovelson//May 29, 2018

Mad for musicals, now he writes them

Doug Hovelson//May 29, 2018

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the theater where “Here Lies Love” was performed.

What better place to stage a musical about a pop music junkie than a record store?

But not just any record store, but the record store of Twin Cities legend, the Electric Fetus.

Dan Tenenbaum not only liked the idea — he made it happen for the Minneapolis Musical Theatre this spring.

Tenenbaum joined the Minneapolis Musical Theatre board in 1998, about the same time he boarded ship at Gray Plant Mooty.

He and his wife, Jennifer, both love musical theater. “We’ve seen about 600 musicals between us,” says Tenenbaum. They keep score on spreadsheets, logging details fastidiously about all the plays they’ve seen together and separately.

“We’re an Ivy League couple, so of course we use spreadsheets,” Tenenbaum jokes.

The couple first met as undergrads at Brandeis University, a small private college in Waltham, Massachusetts. Both were intent on becoming lawyers, but their shared interest in musicals was also something to bond over, says Tenenbaum. While at Brandeis, he also first revealed an interest in playwrighting, co-crafting a musical about student life at the college with his roommate — who, remarkably enough, also shared an interest in musical theater. “Dare to be Different” was produced by the school as part of parents festivities weekend Tenenbaum’s senior year.

Then it was on to more serious academic and life matters for Tenenbaum and his wife-to-be, Jennifer. She studied law at Harvard Law School, he at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, maintaining their relationship long-distance-style during their law school years. Law degrees in their hands, they married and moved to the Twin Cities, where Jennifer went to work as corporate counsel for Imation Corp. in Oakdale, and Dan joined Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty. Not long after, he also joined the board of the Minneapolis Musical Theatre, a company dedicated to providing affordable access to musicals not elsewhere produced locally.

Fast forward 20 years, and here’s Tenenbaum one fine Sunday night in May standing ticket-taker watch at the door of the Electric Fetus record store in south Minneapolis. The occasion is the Twin Cities premiere weekend of “High Fidelity,” the first musical to be produced in a record store in the Twin Cities. Tenenbaum, now a principal, board member and co-chair of the Entrepreneural Services Team at Gray Plant Mooty, couldn’t be more delighted than to play a role in bringing “High Fidelity,” a play about a music store employee-cum-pop-music-geek, into the record store.

“It’s going to be epic!” he says ahead of the show. To him befell the honors of securing the space for the show — an easy sell to the Electric Fetus owner; marketing the show; and finally, collecting tickets at the door. The theater company maintains an all-hands available policy for productions, he says — and he’s one of the hands once production begins.

Tenenbaum had seen the play in its original New York production years before. He also had some prior experience with “immersion theater,” having seen “Here Lies Love” in a black box theater at the Public Theater of New York. That play, a musical based on the rivalry between the Marcos and Aquina families over political control of the Philippines in the 1980s, opened his eyes to the possibilities of staging plays in unconventional ways. He cites it as one of his all-time favorites, along with a long list of others such as “Rent,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Wicked,” “Once On This Island,” “Beauty and the Beast” (not bad for a Disneyfied play!), “Falsettos” and … the list goes go on and on. After all, when it comes to musicals, what’s not to like?

Now that he’s familiarized himself with genre over the past few decades, Tenenbaum is poised to resume his stalled career as a playwright – and that of his old college roommate and co-author too. The two of them collaborated on a children’s play, based on a favorite childhood book of Tenenbaum’s called “Pickle-Chiffon Pie.” The curtain may rise on that play later this year – or early next year – on the stage of a notable children’s theater company based in a southeastern U.S. city, he says.

He rediscovered “Pickle-Chiffon Pie” while going through some old books in his parents’ basement. He dusted off the book, reread it and thought it could still speak to children today. Just to be sure, he ran it past a local expert, his then-10-year-old daughter. She gave it a glowing review. Meanwhile, he got back in touch with his old partner-in-playwriting from college, now a successful entrepreneur in Tucson, to talk about taking another crack at the literary life.

What would you say about writing another musical, Tenenbaum queried. “He replied, ‘what kind of weeds are you smoking in Minnesota?’” Then they got down to business. If they could get the rights to the book, then he was in, his friend said. “You’re the lawyer, so you can figure out how to get the rights,” he said.

Negotiations began in earnest once Tenenbaum tracked the author, Roger Bradfield, to his current residence in California. Bradfield, who goes by the name of Jolly Roger Bradfield as an author, agreed to let the playwriting proceed. The book “has a great moral and characters,” and with some updating and dramatization, it forms the basis for a fine children’s musical, Tenenbaum says.

“We shared it with the artistic director and new play development director at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company (CTC),” he says. “They thought it had promise.”

The CTC couldn’t take it on for development but directed the playwrights to several other development companies in different parts of the country. Ultimately the play landed with the Adventure Theater Company in Washington, D.C., which took it through a workshop performance before a live audience. That performance notably took place on the eve of Hurricane Sandy’s stormy assault on the Eastern Seaboard in September 2012. “That might have kept the attendance numbers down,” Tenenbaum allows.

Chronologically, the theater world operates by its own distinct clock. “Plays can take 10 years to produce. That’s not uncommon,” says Tenenbaum.

If and when the play is finally produced, the CTC might then be interested in revisiting discussions about producing it on its stage, Tenenbaum says.

In the meantime, he and writing partner already put their talents to work drafting the score for another musical aimed at a more mature audience. Dubbed “Marathon” for a working title, the play revolves around the lives of two entrepreneurs. The authors draw on their own real-life experience for their material. “My buddy is a serial entrepreneur,” says Tenenbaum. “And it ties in with my practice in entrepreneurial law.”

Most of the first act is written, along with the closing scene, with the middle ground in the script yet to come. They have about a dozen songs written as well and are looking to get them studio-recorded using professional vocal talent so they can showcase the musicality of the play to potential producers.

“We’re in it for the long run, thus the ‘Marathon’ title,” says Tenenbaum.

Getting the plays produced would almost be the icing on the cake to all the fun that Tenenbaum has working in the theatrical vein again with his old friend. They drifted away on their own separate paths after college, but now talk on the phone almost every day, he says. “Having a business venture is almost a byproduct of reviving our friendship,” he says.

Musical theater also binds the entire Tenenbaum family together, it seems. Not only are he and his wife intent on taking in as much of the musical theater world as time, budget and location allow, but their two children also love musicals as well. They also keep track by spreadsheets. “Our 11-year-old has seen 200 musicals, and our 15-year-old has seen 210,” he says.

Their parents continue to set the pace, with Tenenbaum now eying the 1,000-mark for unique musicals seen in his lifetime.

His parents instilled a love of musicals in him, he says. “I grew up on it,” he says. Showtunes were always in the air around the house, he says. He never aspired to act, he says, even though he nabbed one of the lead roles in a high school production of “Oklahoma!” In fact, the theater life never really appealed to him as a vocational choice — that way lay starvation, homelessness, painful death and other forms of unspeakable deprivation, in his view.

“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer in the fourth grade,” he says.

Yet he found ways to involve himself in the theatrical world, such as with the Minneapolis Musical Theatre and as a former board member of the Hennepin Theater Trust in Minneapolis. He joined the board in its early days as one of its first outside directors, staying on until he reached the term-limits maximum a couple of years ago.

Broadway-sized musicals are the bread-and-butter of the burgeoning Minneapolis theater district today, so Tenenbaum and family aren’t lacking for big-theater options. He’s looking forward to “Hamilton” coming to the Orpheum in Minneapolis for a six-week run beginning Aug. 29, followed by “Hello, Dolly,” “Les Misérables,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” among others. “The Theater Trust really has a home-run season coming up,” he says. Nor do the Tenenbaums miss much on the local scene. “I like Lyric Arts, the Lake Shore Players in White Bear Lake, Theater Latté Da, Artistry at the Bloomington Center for the Arts … we’re very likely to go anywhere for the right play,” he says.

The right play is one that gets the music right – and makes it predominate, he says. He thinks Stephen Sondheim perhaps best expressed it once in an interview: “The relationship between characters on stage is between the characters … music connects to the soul of the audience.”

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