Former Perham band teacher composes music for off-Broadway musical
Sitting at his grand piano, located in a place of prominence just inside the front door of his home, Larry Wankel wrote the music for 19 songs that will be performed as part of a musical opening off-Broadway in New York City on Saturday.
The production, "Sgt. Stubby — The Great American War Dog Musical," is based on a true story and was written by Jack Dyville, who asked Wankel to write the music to the lyrics in the musical.
The production is about the life of a stray pup who attached itself to the 102nd Infantry during training. Cpl. Robert Conroy became fond of the dog and smuggled him aboard the troop ship when the Infantry was deployed to France, where he served with the regiment for 18 months. During that time, the Boston Terrier participated in four offensives and 17 battles, during which he was wounded twice, captured an enemy spy and learned to warn his fellow soldiers of poison gas and bomb attacks. With the capture of the enemy spy, he was nominated for the rank of sergeant. He is considered the most decorated war dog of World War I.
The retired Perham High School music teacher has collaborated since 2013 with Dyville, who was commissioned to write a play about some aspect of the Great War — World War I — to commemorate the Old Armory in Williston, N.D. when it was 100 years old.
For his part, Dyville started looking at one hundreds associated with the Old Armory and the war, according to Wankel, and came across the story of Sgt. Stubby.
Dyville and Wankel met in the mid-1980s during a tour of England, Wales and Ireland and worked together on a play, "Sentimental Journey,"... based on their overseas trip. Wankel ended up writing the lyrics for three of the 19 songs and created the music for all of them for the war story, he said from his home in rural Perham.
Writing the music for Sgt. Stubby, while not easy, was not difficult either, Wankel said. With some songs already written, he would read the lyrics to learn what the song was saying.
"There were clues in everything," Wankel said. "First you have to assess the intent of the song."
Of course, he read the script, too, to discern what the mood of the scene was, citing the example of the song written when Stubby received his coat with all the medals on it.
"That was a proud moment (for Stubby)," Wankel said, "and the music should reflect that."
In addition to writing the music for all the songs, he also wrote the lyrics of three songs and revised the lyrics for another six, he said.
Wankel was inspired by his life experiences, as well as music written previously by other composers, he said.
"There has been lots of stuff done and the motifs are set there from years and years and years of musical theatre," he said. "And you draw from everything you know from your past."
He also drew from lessons he learned from innumerable Perham High School students who took his band classes over the years.
"They have taught me a lot," he said, adding what he hopes they learn from him now is that "anything is possible in music, no matter your age, no matter your time, you can always succeed."
Having his music play in an off-Broadway production is happening after a bout with cancer, which Wankel said caused his retirement from teaching in 2013 and is being managed at this time, and as he turns 60.
"They need to know it's all happening now," he said. "They can learn from this."
Originally, the production was meant to be a children's musical, Wankel said, but when his cancer go bad, the collaboration was put on hold. It was scheduled to be produced last summer.
"I just couldn't work on it," he said. "During the halt, the storyline got to the point where we knew it wasn't a children's musical. It morphed into what it is now."
Dyville and Wankel did a lot of their collaboration electronically, Wankel said. He would sit at his piano, with the computer on top and play a melody and ask Dyville, "how do you like this?"
"We would Skype," Wankel said. "It worked beautifully."
Wankel left for New York last Friday, to take in the preview shows and to work with the actors, one of whom was having trouble with one of the hardest songs in the play, he said.
"I can't wait to go out and see it and feel the energy (of the actors)," he said. "One of the dudes is having difficulties with getting all the words in. How I'll help him, I don't know until I see what he can't do."
The actors will send him stuff, he said, and ask what was he thinking in specific scenes, or will call about what they are to do for a particular song. His initial thought was "I wasn't thinking anything, you're the professional, I just wrote it. I'm just a dude in Minnesota who wrote a musical."
Through the calls and emails, though, he is getting to know the actors and working with them, even long distrance, is "pretty cool," he said.
"I'm getting to know them directly," he said, "and I'm really enjoying that a lot. They are great human beings."
Although Wankel might be considered a celebrity of sorts now, another local name will also be proudly on display during the production's run: KLN.
When NutriSource Pet Foods, produced by Tuffy's in Perham, learned about that a local person was doing a play about pets, it decided to make a donation to help underwrite the production, Wankel said.
During the premier, which is Saturday, Dec. 3, at St. Luke's Theatre on Restaurant Row, Wankel will likely be standing in the back watching the performance, not front and center as one might think.
"With $100 seats, you can't afford to give them away, he said, "Unless it's not sold out."
His wife has a seat in the theatre which seats 198, he said, but if the show is sold out, "I won't sit down at all."
So far, two weeks into the previews, audiences have embraced the production — "They say it's heartwarming,"—Wankel said, which eases his nervousness a bit, but he was anxious to get to New York to be a part of the musical experience.
"It's surreal," he said, "Enjoyable, but surreal."