Epic Musical

Tucson writer goes from novelist to musical theater in 2016 New York Music Theater Festival

Writer Germaine Shames was once asked by an interviewer, “When did you become a writer?”

“I’ve always been a writer,” she replied.

I asked Shames about that declaration in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve always had a sort of narration going on in my head. I’ve always felt like I was a little on the outside, observing.”

It has been years, and a rather circuitous route, that has brought her to the full manifestation of what she felt for years, and she thinks she has finally found the genre that suits her most: musical theater. And a producer and his company in New York is interested in producing her first effort. The process has been set into motion and at the very least, her musical You, Fascinating You, will be showcased at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2016, where new shows, according to the NYMF website, “are subsidized and provided all the key components needed to realize a show … giving independent artists and emerging producers resources and opportunities they couldn’t otherwise access or afford.” The play has already been a finalist in the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.

Certainly, Shames has already produced a rather impressive body of work, which she began developing after a stint as an executive at Hilton International. When the company was sold, she knew she didn’t want to pursue corporate executive life.

“I started trying to find work by writing magazine articles, which I did for many years.” The subjects involved everything from business to travel to art. Then she worked as a foreign journalist, which sent her packing to locations worldwide. But it was her two-year sojourn in the Middle East which gave her the inspiration for a different genre of writing, novels.

Between Two Deserts was the first, and it was a sample of that novel, although unpublished at the time, which earned Shames the Arizona Commission on the Arts’ Literary Fellowship in Fiction in 1998. After Between Two Deserts was published, Shames wrote two more novels under a pen name, Casper Silk, all receiving favorable critical attention. But when Shames stumbled upon a true but untold story about the necessity of a young and gifted Jewish ballerina, who had to leave her Catholic-Italian composer husband during the lead up to World War II, she knew she had to tell this story. This became the novel You, Fascinating You, and now Shames has adapted that story into the musical version that has attracted the attention of the producer and the New York Musical Festival.

In the final weeks of 1938, Shames writes in her blog, “in the shadow of Kristallnacht and imminent war, a heartsick Italian maestro named Pasquale Frustaci, wrote a love song called ‘Tu, Solamente Tu.’ The lyrics lamented his forced separation from his wife, the Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf, in the wake of Mussolini’s edict banishing foreign Jews from Italy.”

Twenty-two years passed before the maestro and his ballerina were reunited face-to-face.

The couple had a son who was two when Margit fled. In a rather strange turn of events, Shames met that son, Cesare, 30 years ago while visiting New England. “He intrigued me, and there was something that hinted of a story there.”

Then, 20 years later, Shames, out of the blue, received in the mail a videotaped account of his mother’s story told by her son. “He liked my writing,” she says, and wanted to share Margit’s story with her.

When she watched the tape, Shames has said, “I sat riveted as if hearing the libretto of a classic ballet or opera and knew I would one day share this hidden epic with the world.”

What followed was years of research about this episode, a heart-wrenching story which no one had ever seemed to notice. The result was a historical novel, “You, Fascinating You,” which won acclaim from the Historical Novel Society, which awarded it their Editor’s Choice. They called the book “faultless” and “most highly recommended.”

Then she began to experiment with playwriting. “When I was writing novels, there were things I couldn’t bring into focus, but as soon as I adapted them for the stage, they came beautifully into focus and seemed to gain power. That was a revelation for me.”

Shames says she is attracted to the collaborative nature of theater and “the thrill of words flying off the page. It’s live and immediate and personal. The words are no longer static on a page, but are flesh and blood,” just feet from the audience. She submitted short plays to festivals, some of which were recognized and given full production at the festival. A Tucson resident for 20 years, she has had several staged readings of her plays here at home.

As Shames began trying her hand at writing plays, the story of Margit and the maestro of her novel begged for a musical setting.

One of her favorite childhood family memories, she says, is “listening to soundtracks of musicals and singing them together in the car when we drove. I knew Margit’s story had an epic quality. And music brings an added intangible.”

She wrote the book and lyrics and set about to find a composer to work with. She did, and she and young Italian composer Federico Ferrandina have created a 19 song score.

Shames says that in writing plays she has finally found the forum where her attraction to stories of heart, stories that become immediate and arresting and even transcendent, can be played out on the stage. So she waits to see if the producer interested in “You, Fascinating You” will take on the task of seeing it to production, maybe even in New York. And who knows? It just might happen.

For more information on Shames’ work, visit germainewrites.com. ■

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