Orphan Train, the Musical - Q&A with bookwriter L.E. McCullough

L.E. McCullough is an author, composer, performer and producer. He has worked as a journalist, publicist and fundraiser. He helps other artists get their art out to the world, and organizes festivals and events (as he puts it, he has spent his adult life being a resource). He plays the Irish tinwhistle and flute (composes and produces, too). Gosh, is there anything this man hasn't done? See for yourself at http://www.lemccullough.com.

The latest entry on his dazzling CV is bookwriter for Orphan Train, the Musical, which will have performances at New York's Grand Central Station this coming Friday and Saturday (Oct. 11-12) as part of the Centennial Celebration for the terminal. 

But hey, he's much more interesting than me - so let's get on with his Q&A! 

1)  How did you become involved with ORPHAN TRAIN?

I had just moved to New York City and my actress fiancee (now wife, Lisa Bansavage) took me to a party. Michael Greer was there, and we began talking about our common love of Irish music and Irish literature. Next day, he told me his longtime musical collaborator, Doug Katsaros, was interested in writing about a little-known episode in American history — the Orphan Train movement. I actually knew a bit about the Orphan Trains, and I had already written about 50 historical plays, so Michael, Doug and I met and decided to create a musical.

2) How has the collaboration worked?

I did more intensive research on the Orphan Trains and created a group of characters that mixed reality and fiction. Then I roughed out a plot that told the Orphan Train story through these characters and started writing dialogue for the scenes. When I had the first draft of the book done, Michael and Doug and I decided where the songs would appear. Michael wrote lyrics, and often I would feed him lines of dialogue, historical facts, 19th-century slang, actual quotes from Orphan Train founders and so forth to keep grounded in history. Michael took it all and transformed it into lyrics that Doug made music for. Michael and Doug had such a simpatico musical relationship that within 2 months we had a complete musical. And having Pat Birch come in as director really kicked us up a notch. She's amazingly gifted in keeping the narrative personal and focused on the children's viewpoint. Over the years, we've honed the play to be ever more powerful and succinct in telling the Orphan Train story so that it feels compelling to  today's audiences.

3)  How much input did you have in ORPHAN TRAIN's songs?

Doug created all the music, and his stylistic versatility has made this score truly phenomenal. He's created music that sounds "historical" and "American" but is very sophisticated, subtle and totally original. My input into the songs was feeding Michael history facts, slang snippets, bits of conversation, etc. that he fused into his lyrics.

4) What lines really capture the heart of the show?

ORPHAN TRAIN shows a serious social problem and says to the audience:  "These people made a difference in solving this problem a hundred years ago; what can we do about the same problem today?"

So, the narrative, the songs, the whole thrust of the play is to get the audience to identify not just with the orphans but also the adults who got off the sidelines and pitched in to make a difference.

The song that best expresses that is "Some Letters" sung by Miss Pemberton, the naive young placement director whose faith in the Orphan Train movement is battered by the harsh realities of the "orphan saving business". This is the core moment of the play, where Miss Pemberton (who is us, the audience) has to decide whether she's going to stay committed to these children or pass them off as somebody else's problem. I mean, she's not really responsible for this mess, right? The lyrics by Michael and the music by Doug convey this pivotal moment in an incredibly compelling way.

5)  What's next for you?

Well, I want to keep doing everything I do — write more plays, sell some filmscripts to movie makers, keep on playing Irish music, blues, etc. I'm also now managing Hamilton Stage for the Performing Arts in the heart of the Rahway, New Jersey, Arts District. I  want to foster a community of playwrights and producers who create Theatre That Matters. Which is Theatre that talks about the realities of human life on this planet right now ... social and economic realities that shape all our lives. And the fact is, audiences DO want to experience live theatre that asks questions, challenges their assumptions, inspires them to action and positive problem-solving. Contemporary theatre can be more than spectacle or sit-com ... it can change our world. And we'd love to start building that out of Hamilton Stage.