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Harvard’s First Performing Thesis: Shirley, A New Musical by Julia Belanoff

By Ashley Sutherland

Harvard Theater,​ ​Dance,​ ​and​ ​Media’s first performing thesis to premier on December 1, 2017. ​ ​ SHIRLEY: A New Musical About (the Life of) America’s Little Sweetheart

Julia Belanoff (playwright, Shirley) first met the late Shirley Temple Black while trick-or-treating as a young girl in her neighborhood of Woodside, California. She fondly remembers seeing Temple power-walking the neighborhood with her friends, in matching track suits no less, and looks back on time spent singing along to the songs in her movies.

Over a decade later, as a senior at Harvard College in the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration, Belanoff is drawing on her childhood fascination with Shirley Temple Black to write the book for Shirley , a mature and nuanced view of the performer’s complicated life that travels through her transition from childhood stardom, to homemaker, to politician, all the while interrogating the way that Shirley Temple Black inspired other women around her and exploring the ways in which she eventually makes peace with her own journey through life.

The show will feature songs made famous by Shirley Temple Black, with exciting new orchestrations by Johnnie Han . “The original music is so similarly constructed that arranging it to tell a story, with moments as dark as the original music is light, has been a challenge.” Nonetheless, his emerging score effectively brings Temple’s music into a modern context, preserving its original charm while expanding it to fill a narrative space as complex as Temple’s life.

To Belanoff, though, the show’s importance stretches beyond its storytelling power. “I think it’s so important to represent the stories of women onstage, and I’m passionate about creating opportunities for female musical theater performers on this campus .”

To this end, the show features Belanoff in the title role, with a supporting cast made up entirely of female Harvard undergraduates and alumnae. This mission is important to music director Elena Sokoloski , too. “Representation in the arts – at every level of a production – is so important, but too often, women conductors and music directors are overlooked,” she explains. “As a young girl, I remember the impact that seeing a young woman directing the marching band at the local high school had on me, and I’m excited to return the favor to a new generation of young theater-lovers.”

Stage director Patric Verrone is no stranger to directing with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, but he’s especially excited for this production. “This show is a unique opportunity to delve into the life of an icon, and we are hoping to show a side of her life that not many people are familiar with. Because the show is in development, this presents a really fantastic chance for everyone involved in the production— including the audience— to shape how this show might look in the future.” As a developmental workshop, the production will offer comment cards to patrons at its close. The show is Belanoff’s senior thesis project, and she’s still refining the script. “I can’t wait to hear what people think, and to take audiences’ reactions into account as I shape future drafts.”

This production is supported by Theater, Dance, and Media at Harvard, as well as the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club. The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America has also awarded the project its Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship, to support research in the library’s collections, and an Elizabeth A. Nicholson Grant, awarded in honor of Elizabeth A. Nicholson ’79 to the most deserving undergraduate project proposals.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.” In collaboration with the Theater, Dance, and Media department, this look into the life of “America’s Little Princess” shares her incredible personal journey from Hollywood stardom to motherhood to international diplomacy. Featuring new interpretations of songs made popular by Shirley Temple, including “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” this show’s original take on a global sensation is an unforgettable story of ambition, fame, loss, and resilience.

TheatreArtLife contributor Mena Buscetto will be attending Shirley and sitting down with Julia Belanoff to discuss the production. Stay tuned for Mena’s article on TheatreArtLife.com article.

DATES: Friday, December 1st at 7:30 PM, Saturday, December 2nd at 7:30 PM, and Sunday, December 3rd at 2PM

WHERE: The historic Agassiz Theater, 5 James Street, Cambridge, MA

TICKETS: For tickets ($5-$10) or more information, the public may contact the Harvard Box Office or (617) 496-2222

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