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Songwriting Grads Come Home with 'Shell' on Their Backs

Northwestern staging hit musical, "How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?", written by recent alumni Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler.

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April 9, 2009 | by Matt Paolelli

Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, recent graduates of Northwestern's School of Communication, haven't been away long. But in just a few short years they've managed to make a name for themselves on the Chicago theater scene. Now they're happy to be coming home to their alma mater, where the theatre department is staging their hit musical, "How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?"

The show is a one-act musical retelling of Aesop's fables, to be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, April 10; 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 11 and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 12, at the Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive, on the University's Evanston campus.

"It feels a little bit like coming full circle," Schmuckler said. "Not to mention the fact that we both started writing musical theater stuff because of Northwestern, but the show's inception was thanks to a connection we made at Northwestern and a launching off that we got from Northwestern."

Mahler and Schmuckler, who graduated in 2004 and 2005 respectively, cut their songwriting teeth by working on the Waa-Mu Show, Northwestern's annual student-produced musical with a breakneck pace. They agree that their Waa-Mu work ranks among their best college memories, and they credit the experience with preparing them for the difficult reality of writing new musicals.

"The Waa-Mu training and that 'do-it-yourself' mentality has helped us immensely with whatever we end up tackling as writers," Mahler said. "We feel like we have the wherewithal to give anything a shot."

After Mahler graduated and Schmuckler was still a student, they were invited to represent Northwestern in a showcase for the National Alliance for Musical Theater where they individually performed their own original compositions.

"We were approached that night by Rick Boynton at Chicago Shakespeare Theater about if we would be interested in working on an hour-long family musical for them," Mahler said. "It sort of was perfect because it would be a great way for us to find out how we work together as writers, so we jumped on it and came up with 'Shell.'"

As Schmuckler completed his senior year, the duo took advantage of his student access to campus buildings, hammering out songs wherever they could find a free piano.

"We wrote the first couple songs in the Music Administration Building and the show was sung out loud for the first time in a theater on campus," Schmuckler said. "So it's very fitting and a propos that it's coming back here and getting another life at Northwestern."

The children's musical made a critically acclaimed run at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in the spring and summer of 2007. It tells the story of six young students and a substitute teacher who turn an after-school detention session into an imaginative reenactment of Aesop's fables.

"As young writers, it's really hard to get a hold of properties that aren't in the public domain, so we were looking way back and came upon Aesop's fables as something to use and put our own unique spin on," Mahler said.

The show's lively melodies and clever lyrics are the result of true collaboration between the songwriters.

"One of us will usually start off with a seedling of an idea for a song or a melody, so we'll sit down at the piano together and just kind of hash it out together, and throw ideas back and forth and goof around," Schmuckler said.

"We are both composers and lyricists, so we aren't used to writing with someone else," Mahler said. "You look to the great songwriting teams and it's usually a division of labor, and we tried it a couple of different ways, but the stuff that we ended up liking the best came from both of us."

Click here for more information about the Northwestern run of the show and to watch a video interview with the show's director, Rives Collins.

Click here to listen to clips from two of the musical's songs.