Olympia composer Terry Shaw — better known as the football coach at Timberline High School — aims to change people’s hearts with his music. Shaw, whose 2015 “Tents,” told stories of people living in a tent city, is back with a new musical based on Edith Wharton’s tragic “House of Mirth.” The show, produced by Shaw’s own Virtuoso Productions, opens Saturday, March 4, at Timberline’s theater.
“If I can make people think, if I can make people feel, then I feel like I’m doing my job as a writer,” said Shaw, who also teaches choir and weightlifting at Timberline. “With ‘Tents,’ my goal was not to be a homeless advocate; my goal was just to tell stories that are real.”
He sees the same potential in “Mirth,” about a woman navigating life in high society New York in the late 1800s. “There are multiple characters in this show that I think a lot of people will identify with in some way,” he told OLY ARTS. “They are timeless characters that just pop out at you.”
“Mirth” came to Shaw’s attention more than two decades ago, when he was working on a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” with then Capital High School drama teacher Shawn Riley. Riley had just seen the 2000 film of Wharton’s book, starring Gillian Anderson, and suggested that he and Shaw write a musical version together.
The pair wound up dropping the project, but not before Shaw had bought the book, read the last chapter and written what would become the musical’s final song, “The Moment Is Gone,” whose title comes straight from a line in the book. “I don’t know where that song came from,” he told OLY ARTS. “It just came out of the sky, and there it was.”
Over the years, he kept thinking about the book, a scathing indictment of the society in which Wharton lived, and in 2018, he decided to proceed with writing a musical version. “I chose this story because I believe in the story,” he said. “I think it needs telling.” It didn’t hurt that his wife, Jennifer Shaw, was well suited for the lead role of Lily Bart, a well-born but not well-off woman who at 29 faces dwindling marriage prospects.
Shaw’s adaptation of the novel, told mostly through song, addresses two major themes, he wrote in his director’s notes: “1) What is love? 2) What is the role of a woman in society?”
Not much has changed for women since Wharton wrote “Mirth,” he said. “There’s a wage gap; there are all sorts of discrepancies between the man and the woman 100 years after she wrote this,” he said. “This is a timeless story (in that way), and it shouldn’t be.
“And everyone is going to be able to identify with the love piece,” he said. “What is love and how do we act on it or how do we not act on it in our own lives?”
Troy Arnold Fisher, the musical’s director, agreed. The show is above all a love story,” he said. “Who has more faith than someone falling in love? You believe anything can happen. … We all make mistakes in the game of love.” He’s been thinking a lot about the Joe South song “Games People Play” (https://youtu.be/vDeVonv3kY0), he said, singing part of it.
Fisher is enthusiastic about “Mirth’s” music, too. “There are melodies that will stick with you,” he said. “I think it’s amazing. How lucky we are in Olympia to have someone with that kind of talent teaching at a local high school and composing.”
Shaw’s second original musical, “Mirth” is on a much larger scale than “Tents,” which had a cast of eight and a small ensemble of musicians. Besides Jennifer Shaw, “Mirth’s” actors are Derrick Zander, Bri Hines, Ian Montgomery, Jane Rockwell, John Martin, Stephanie Crouch, Becky Owen, Christian Bolduc, Angie Ward, Emily Walsh, Lilly Dickinson, Sara Bryan, Tim Rupert, Owen Shaw, Onyx Walsh, Anja Swenson, Rachel Williamson, Izzy Coulson and Jim Long.
There are nearly as many musicians involved. Terry Shaw is the pianist and conductor. Also in what Shaw calls “an all-star Olympia orchestra”: violinists Grant Sears, Yukino Sokolic, Julie Sandvig and Barbara Johnston; violists Austin Schlichting and Reiden Pasion; cellists Joe Sokolic and Chip Schooler; bassist Rick Jarvela; flautist Laura Dickinson; oboeist Karen Gheorghiu; clarinetist Tom Dickinson; bassoonist Cheryl Phillips; horn player Jean Van Elffen; trombonist Frank Johnston and percussionist Ben Martin.
House of Mirth
2 p.m. March 4 and 5 and 7 p.m. March 10 and 11
Timberline High School Theatre, 6120 Mullen Road SE, Lacey
Photos courtesy of Terry Shaw.