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.

Orphan Train, the Musical - Q&A with director Pat Birch

If you walk through New York's Grand Central Station Friday or Saturday (Oct 11-12), you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of something you don't normally see in a train station: a musical. 

(The presentation is part of GCT's Centennial Celebration - so there will be other cool events coming, no doubt.) 

Orphan Train is about six children who were part of a movement in 1872 to send orphans - "surplus children" - out of the horror that was New York City and place them with families in the West - both for their own good, and as cheap labor for the booming frontier.

Orphan Train has a book by L.E. McCullough, lyrics by Michael Barry Greer, score by Emmy-winning composer Doug Katsaros,  and direction by Emmy-winning choreographer Patricia Birch.  The 75-minute musical has a fabulous Broadway cast, and includes some of Rosie's O'Donnell's Theatre Kids. 

We were so excited to hear about this project - talk about inspirational subject matter! - that we reached out to the creators and will be offering a series of Q&A's with them. We're going to lead off with Pat. Birch  Pat has earned two Emmy Awards, five Tony nominations, and scads of other honors, including her recent induction into the Theater Hall of Fame. Pat has directed music-driven projects ranging from Sondheim to the Rolling Stones, and to theatre folk, she is a Legend with a capital L.

Pat has worked with Orphan Train for years, and Hope Sings is so happy to have an opportunity to learn and share more about the project through this informal Q&A. It's so welcome to hear her goals for the show are  not just artistic, but social as well.  As she says in her interview, "In the 1870s the kids on the streets were called "surplus children." I want to help our own 2013 surplus kids now!

And now...here's Pat! 

1) How did Orphan Train begin its life as a musical, and how did you become involved?

They invited me to a very early reading. I fell in love with the stories and the message, and wanted to, and did, help the writers develop it.

2) What has been the journey of the show so far?

There were a few early developmental performances at NYMF (the New York Musical Festival). Patricia Snyder optioned it for NYST. We had huge success in the tri-state area - and thoughts about coming in to NYC, but I felt we might do some good and try to do a few gala performances at Grand Central - the very station from which the trains departed - then go across the country on the route of the trains, playing for family audiences and raising awareness- helping our own needy children!

3) How has it been to stage the show at Grand Central Station, of all places? The challenges/bonuses?

We're on the way now - it will be enormously exciting to play Vanderbilt Hall - we're ready for sound challenges and a very short rehearsal there before we have an audience - but guess what? We'll be fine. The cast - including Rosie's Theater Kids, wonderful Steve Blanchard, DeWitt Fleming and very talented up and comers, some from Marymount's Musical theater program - are great!

4) What impact do you hope the show has on the audience - on the world?

I hope  to bring Orphan Train to a wider audience across the country … a family-focused drama that will inspire thousands of Americans  to get involved in supporting foster care, early education, wellness/nutrition, juvenile justice and other critical youth development needs in their communities. In the 1870s the kids on the streets were called "surplus children." I want to help our own 2013 surplus kids now!


For more information on Orphan Train go to  http://orphantrainmusical.com.

Though there are no tickets left for these performances, there has been such strong demand that they hope to do more in the future. To get on their mailing list, write to orphantrainmusical@gmail.com