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‘Homework Machine’ adds musical score to popular tale

Composer Keith Herrmann (seated) and lyricist Mark Cabaniss (standing) work with the lead youth actors during a rehearsal for “The Homework Machine.”

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Composer Keith Herrmann (seated) and lyricist Mark Cabaniss (standing) work with the lead youth actors during a rehearsal for “The Homework Machine.”

When composer, producer, and writer Mark Cabaniss was looking for a book that might make a great musical for young audiences, Dan Gutman’s “The Homework Machine” jumped out at him.

“What kid doesn’t want that?” Cabaniss says, at a recent rehearsal for the musical version of the book, which is being given its world premiere by the Boston Children’s Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, from April 19-27. “But, of course, there are consequences, and the story allows us to explore a mix of serious and fun issues.”

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Gutman’s best-selling book follows an unlikely quartet of fifth-graders who become allies when one creates a machine that not only does their homework for them, it presents it in their own handwriting. But when the machine begins to have a mind of its own, and the authorities become suspicious, the fifth-graders have to confess their crime and face the consequences. Gutman structures the book around a series of first-person police interviews after a crime has been committed. “I’ve written a lot of music in my life,” says Cabaniss, who is a music publisher/producer for Alfred Music, an educational music publisher based in Nashville, “but I thought getting the script right would be the challenge and this would be a great opportunity for a collaboration with another composer that would let me focus on the lyrics and the book.”

Cabaniss turned to Tony-nominated composer Keith Herrmann, best known for his 1988 musical, “Romance, Romance.” “I thought the music should sound like Keith,” Cabaniss says.

In the rehearsal room, the actors playing the four fifth-graders gather to sing through the music for the first time. Herrmann, a burly, bearded man, sits down at the keyboard and starts coaching the cast, who range in age from 14 to 17, through the harmonies and the syncopated, jazzy beat of the opening number with gentle encouragement and patience. The slight, energetic Cabaniss sings along, and offers insights into the characters. At one point, when the lyrics say “things got crazy,” Herrmann mimes a wild electric guitar solo, to the delight of the young cast.

“Working on this project has been a joy at every level,” says Herrmann, who has been working with Cabaniss since early 2012 on the new musical. “I’ve had the opportunity to compose music to the lyrics ‘homework sucks,’ and build songs around lyrics that include the words ‘fart,’ ‘booger,’ and ‘belch.’ How often does that happen?”

Herrmann says new musicals often suffer from a weak book and a strong score, but Cabaniss’s composing experience, along with his focus on making story line work, have made them a good team. “We balance each other,” says Herrmann. “Mark is a very buttoned-up kind of guy. He’s like a space shuttle launch director, going through the checklist before countdown, while I want to hear how the cast sounds before I finish the beginning and ending of the show.”

Cabaniss says the team has the advantage of working with a familiar story with a strong moral. “Still,” he says, “it’s a little edgy, and includes issues of substance, like the death of a parent, so the stakes are high.”

Working with Boston Children’s Theatre has been a great boost for the musical theater partners, says Cabaniss. After he and Herrmann sent a demo recording in the fall of 2012 and had a reading in New York in January 2013, Boston Children’s Theatre hosted a reading last summer. “We got great feedback,” says Herrmann. “We were trying hard to stay very close to the book, but they encouraged us to let it be more honest-to-goodness musical theater, which was very freeing. At the same time,” he says, “we’re working on a mix of eclectic sounds, rock and musical theater.”

Every year, BCT artistic director Burgess Clark says the company receives 500 to 1,000 submissions of new plays and musicals. “We’re primarily interested in work that has curriculum connections,” says Clark. “ ‘The Homework Machine’ fit that criteria, and we’re thrilled that this is the inaugural production of our Marcia J. Trimble New Works Program, which is designed to champion the development, production and continued life of new plays and musicals for children.”

The collaborators are definitely onto something, since school matinees for the new musical are already sold out.

“We’re trying to create new classics,” says BCT executive director and producer Toby Schine. “The fact that schools are responding so positively shows that new work is viable and can create a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among schoolchildren and their parents and teachers.”

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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