Whether he’s creating musicals from favorite fairytales or classic novels, local playwright Paul Bruce lights up the stage with songs and stories from the Motor City to the Big Apple.
Bruce, a retired Dearborn Public Schools teacher, first began writing musicals for his students in 1987, for an afterschool program, when he taught at Lowrey Middle School.
“No one would take the afterschool choral assignment,” he said. “I offered to do it, but said I would be putting on small musicals, as opposed to vocal concerts, in order to attract more students.”
Bruce said his building principal, Chuck Stanton, was enthusiastic and supportive, so he created short, 35- to 40-minute musicals designed to meet the needs of students for whom English was a second language, and who had limited vocal music experience.
The result was eight musicals: “Spangles and Tin,” based on “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” in 1987; “The Magical Matchstick,” based on “The Little Match Girl,” in 1987; “The Velveteen Rabbit” in 1988; “The Nightingale” in 1989; “Rollin’,” based on “The Little Engine That Could,” which was performed on roller skates, in 1990; “The Five Chinese Brothers” in 1991; “The Little House” in 1992; and “Stone Soup” in 1993.
Bruce then transferred to Becker Elementary School, which did not have an afterschool program.
The score for “The Velveteen Rabbit,” with some new material, and book by Joseph Haynes, was produced professionally in 1989 at the Marquis Theater in Northville.
Bruce said “The Velveteen Rabbit” is his favorite youth production.
“It has one of my most attractive scores for a kids’ show,” he said.
Bruce’s first two adult musicals, “Madame X” in 1991, and “Little Women, A Little Musical” in 1994, were created at a time when classic novels were being rediscovered as source material for musicals.
“‘Les Miserables’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ were smash hits,” Bruce said. “On Christmas night, 1988, I was wondering what other interesting pieces, old enough to be in the public domain, were out there waiting to be adapted.”
He said he had picked up a copy of “Madame X” in a free bin at a bookstore a few years earlier.
“It was just sitting on top of my TV cabinet, almost pulsing,” Bruce said. “I was so excited by the randomness of all these things falling into place, that I grabbed the book and wrote the first two songs for the show that very night.”
“Madame X,” based on the novel by J.W. McConaughy, from the play by Alexandre Bisson, premiered in the summer of 1991 at the Players Guild of Dearborn, and raised about $7,000 for the community theater.
“Madame X” was performed professionally twice following its Guild premiere: in 2001 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater at the University of Michigan, and in 2005 at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts.
“Little Woman – A Little Musical” debuted in 1994 with the Southgate Community Players.
“It predates the Broadway version by about a decade,” Bruce said. “I think the small cast, seven in this treatment, and the choice to through-compose the book makes it move quickly and economically, while not compromising the very full and rich text of the novel.”
Bruce’s next musical, based on an original idea, “A Story Two Sing,” (retitled “A Novel Idea,”) previewed in part in a variety show with Gamut Productions before it debuted in 1996 at the Players Guild of Dearborn. It follows two authors forced to collaborate on a novel to save the failing publishing house for which they work.
“Each author creates their own portions of not one, but two novels, while the other haplessly attempts to undo the work of the other,” he said. “Both novels come to life as the writers work and un-work their stories.”
“A Perfectly Normal Boy,” which debuted off-Broadway in 1999, and ran for two months at the Stanford Meisner Theater in New York, is what Bruce considers to be his best work.
The show, a musical revue, humorously chronicles the life of gay men everywhere.
“It was originally written for my friend Rich Bulleri, who wished to produce an original musical locally, via his theater company, Our Time Productions,” Bruce said. “The show’s score was first played at his home.”
He said they soon determined that it was not financially feasible to produce the show locally, and, as a result, it made its debut off-Broadway.
“I took a leave of absence from my teaching job in order to move to New York City to get the show to the stage,” Bruce said. “It worked, because the show sold out, almost exclusively by word of mouth, for every performance after the third show.”
Also, in 1999, “Bachelors and Broads,” a musical revue Bruce wrote about gay men and the women who love them, premiered as a cabaret act at The Duplex in NYC. Parts of the revue were later performed at the Players Guild of Dearborn.
“Flying Free,” a musical revue, was originally written in 1999 to showcase the vocal talents of Bruce’s friend Luis Villabon. It has only been performed, in part, locally, at the Players Guild of Dearborn.
“I would love to see it done in its entirety in the future,” he said.
Bruce said he currently has three musicals in construction in his head, with several complete songs.
“When any of them will come to completion is anyone’s guess,” he said. “It might be fun to do a concert of just the existing songs from all of them, just for fun one day. A friend suggested I call it, ‘Loose Bruce,’ in reference to the random pieces of sheet music on which the songs currently exist.”
Bruce said two of his musical albums, “Madame X, The Musical” and “A Perfectly Normal Boy” are available on iTunes.