Jerry Mitchell is a Broadway legend already – and now he’s looking to steer another show to New York. The openly gay Tony Award winner is directing the world premiere musical “Becoming Nancy” at the Alliance Theatre, now in previews and officially opening next week. It’s one of many productions to savor as part of Atlanta’s theater offerings this fall.
Known best for “Kinky Boots” and “Hairspray,” Mitchell was about to board a plane several years ago when he realized he had watched virtually every movie that would be offered – and had even finished his last book. After picking up the Gay Times magazine in London and seeing a review of Terry Ronald’s young adult novel “Becoming Nancy,” he bought a copy before departing. When he opened it, he couldn’t stop reading. “I am not someone who will sit down and read a book cover to cover – I rarely do that – but this one I did,” he admits. “I didn’t want it to end. I was in love with it, the characters and the story.”
When Mitchell landed, he called his lawyer and asked to get the rights. It took a while – a year and a half – but once he cleared that hurdle, he began finding his creative team – Elliot Davis handling the book and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe the music and lyrics. The team rehearsed for three weeks in New York this summer and then moved down here to get ready for the opening,
In the new musical, set in a London suburb in the late ‘70s, teenager David Starr tries out for a version of “Oliver” and gets cast – in a female role. The casting has repercussions all around the community. It’s a hefty challenge for David, who is already dealing with the realization that he is attracted to a male transfer student. His best friend is having her issues. An African-American, she is dealing with racism, at one point even called an immigrant.
What gets David through some hard times is his love of music. He has posters of Sting, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, ABBA and more on his wall – and when he talks to those posters, the people come to life and talk back.
For Mitchell, so much of what he read seemed relatable to today – especially how parents and teachers oftentimes deal with a situation they are unaware or unfamiliar with. It reminds him of the current struggle the transgender community has to deal with incoming out. “People just don’t understand how to deal with basic human differences,” he says.
Mitchell identified immediately with the protagonist. He grew up himself in Paw Paw, Michigan with no role models or anyone to talk to. After time in St. Louis, he eventually moved to New York, where he danced professionally for a while and eventually began choreographing shows and directing. “Hairspray,” which he choreographed, was a monster hit and he won Tony Awards for two other musicals he choreographed, “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots.” He directed “Kinky Boots” as well and is still amazed at how the show has struck a nerve everywhere it has played, from metropolitan areas to smaller markets.
Besides his work in musicals, Mitchell is also well known for creating the annual Broadway Bares benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.