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A shameful chapter in Boise’s history is revisited ... as a musical

Tom ford (left) and Alex Syiek (right)
Boise Contemporary Theater
Tom ford (left) and Alex Syiek (right)

One of the darkest chapters in Boise’s history – scores of arrests targeting what some called Boise’s “homosexual underground” – is the subject matter of a new stage production, about to make its world premiere at Boise Contemporary Theater.

And though the scandal took place in 1955, the creative team behind “The Show on the Roof” says their musical should be considered through a contemporary lens.

“Let me just say this. I think it's somewhat impossible to look at the show completely from a historical [perspective],” said Tom Ford, who wrote the book alongside Alex Syiek who penned the music and lyrics.

“Our history has changed in good ways and bad ways. A pandemic has happened … is happening. There are all sorts of factors that filter the way you think about a story.”

Just prior to their premiere, Ford and Syiek visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about their years-in-the-making creative effort.

“When we had our first draft, felt like a sort of pertinent, interesting historical drama that still had relevance but now feels very important for not to be pretentious. But there is dealing with issues that are very, very current.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. This evening will be the first performance of a world premiere musical at Boise Contemporary Theater. There is great expectation for what is titled “The Show on the Roof.” The source material is a true story, often misunderstood, but to be sure, a critical moment in the history of the city of Boise. The creative team includes Alex Syiek, who has penned the music and lyrics, and the book has been written by Tom Ford. And we're lucky that Alex and Tom can spend a few minutes with us this morning. Good morning to you both.

TOM FORD: Good morning, George.

ALEX SYIEK: Good morning

PRENTICE: For the record, we are talking about 1955… and what began as the arrest of three men… then, an ugly investigation by police… and quite frankly, an even uglier performance by the press which fanned a great deal of flames in what some people call a scandal. But it was probably much worse than that. So, talk to me about the germ of the idea of turning this story into a musical.

SYIEK: After you, Tom.

FORD: Well, I think it was about four years ago now. Alex came to me at the end of a summer season at the Shakespeare Festival, and he had just been commissioned to write a musical for the Shakespeare Festival's education shows that I had directed. And he had written a great adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, a sort of contemporary spin on it. And he came to me and said he had an idea for a new show, and he said he wanted to do a musical about the Boys of Boise and wanted me to write it with him. And I said no, I'm sorry.

PRENTICE: You said no?

FORD: Oh, absolutely. Pretty adamantly, because I'd never written anything. First of all, it's also just the subject matter. I just thought, this is just too dark and hard and upsetting. But I said I would reread the book, The Boys of Boise by John Gerassi. And then I saw a documentary called The Fall of 55 that was directed by Seth Randall. In it there was a story about a man who ran a drive in restaurant on the outskirts of the city limits in Boise in 1955 called the Howdy Partner Drive In. And there was a photo of this restaurant with his waitresses on the roof in showgirl poses, and he did musical reviews on the roof of this drive-in to entertain the people as they came and ate their meals in their cars. And I thought, okay, that's a musical, you know? And that was when I said, yes.

PRENTICE: Wow, what an entree to tell the story. Do you name names in your show or is the Boys of Boise just an inspiration?

SYIEK: Oh, we name many names. There are some sort of amalgamations in our characters, but there are many times we call to attention actual real life people, including the investigative team that led these investigations. And the Howdy Partner…the building still exists. It's currently a Mexican bakery.

PRENTICE: Here's where I ask a little bit about production design. Do you take us there poetically? Could you paint a word picture for me as far as the production? Does this take place in multiple settings?

FORD: I think our inspirations when we started writing were like Chicago, like Cabaret.

SYIEK: A lot of Kander and Ebb.

FORD: Yeah,  these shows in which you have a framework, a theatrical framework within which you tell a story.

SYIEK: We metaphorically travel to different places throughout Boise, despite all of the action taking place on roof of the Howdy Partner Drive-In.

PRENTICE: It's so interesting you mentioned Kander and Ebb, because that's the first thing I thought of: really good but serious subject matter being adapted to musicals. And all of a sudden you can't consider that story any other way. And whether it's Cabaret… all the way to Kiss of the Spider Woman, and all of a sudden, I care and I'm sweating a little and it's all good. So, Alex, it sounds as if you were laser focused on doing this from day one.

SYIEK: The idea really grabbed me. I was staying with a while…I was working on Around the World in 80 Days with a host family here in Boise. Basically, one of the members of the family said, “You know, what story I'd always wanted to see on stage was this story of the Boys of Boise.” And I said I'd never heard of it. And so he lent me the copy of his the book he had at the time. I didn't really think of following through with it, but then I went back later that summer and had dinner with them again and he was like, “”Did you give any more thought to that? And I said, “No, but I will now.” And that's when I read it again. And I went to Tom. I could see the potential for some real crunchy story-making there.

FORD: I don't know if this is true, but my memory is that Alex told me that his mother told him to ask me to write.

SYIEK: That's true. I was talking to my mother : “I don't know who to ask to write the book for this.” And she said, “What about Tom Ford?”

FORD: So, thanks, Mary.

PRENTICE: So, Alex, can I ask about your method… without giving too many secrets? Are you doing this at the piano or are you in the corner with a legal pad?

SYIEK: Yeah, I usually tend to start lyrically first. That's not always the case, but I'd say 80% of the time I'll.write on a either a notepad or on the digital notepad on my iPad or phone, and I'll sketch out an idea of a lyric. And then once I feel it's in a fine place, I'll jump on the piano, which is my primary instrument, and that's how most of the score is written.

PRENTICE: And the bones of the book: Did you build the book around the songs? I'm just curious. Did you get a handful of songs or did you create the framework? I'm curious of how fluid that process was.

FORD: Well, we were really lucky in that when we decided we were going to get to give this a stab, we submitted a few sample scenes and songs and an outline to the contemporary theater. And then they commissioned us and we received the River Prize for that year, and they brought us out and we were locked in a room for a month. And so we were there together and it was invaluable. And my memory is that we sort of cobbled it out together.

SYIEK: Sometimes I would be working on a song in one corner while he was writing a scene. But it tends to be the case that I actually really enjoy when Tom would come to me and say, I have a scene here, but I think there needs to be a song that fits in between here and here. And I'd be like, What does the song need to be about? And he'd say, X, Y and Z. And I'd say, Great, cool, I can do that assignment. I'll, I'll get to it.

FORD: Yeah. And it's so thrilling when you have just an emotional idea and you say the words are something like this and then Alex runs away and comes back in infuriatingly short time later with a heartbreaking song. And we would also I would write a piece or I would write a monologue and Alex would say, I'm taking that, you know, and, you know, but in a great way. It was it was.

SYIEK: Some things just sing when you read them on the page.

FORD: But it's very much a I would say it's a fantasy, a fantasy and a piece of historical fiction.

PRENTICE: So let's talk a little bit about that. Are we to access this as a snapshot in history, or do we look at this through a contemporary lens?

SYIEK: Absolutely contemporary.

FORD: Absolutely. The contemporary lens.

PRENTICE: Talk to me about that.

SYIEK: How much do you want to give away?

FORD: Yeah, we start to get into spoilers. It's impossible. Let me just say this. I think it's somewhat impossible to look at the show completely from a historical [perspective].. Our history has changed in good ways and bad ways. A pandemic has happened, happening. There are all sorts of factors that filter the way you think about a story. Yeah. So I think that the contemporary is very, very prescient.

SYIEK: And I will say even like the extra two years we had to develop this piece because of the pandemic have changed the story right through our writing as well. Like the show would have been very, very different if we had gone into production two years ago when we were originally scheduled to.

FORD: Yeah, I will say that the show, when we had our first draft, felt like a sort of pertinent, interesting historical drama that still had relevance but now feels very important for not to be pretentious. But there is dealing with issues that are very, very current.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that you're now more anxious than nervous?

SYIEK: I'll say yes. We had what's called the producer circle yesterday where certain members of the producing community come and watch a bit of rehearsal. And it was just like the first time we had an audience that wasn't anyone on the creative team watching. And I know that afterwards I was feeling very anxious about how do they feel, what are they? What are they thinking, what's the response? But I didn't know I was going to feel immediately that way, but I found out that I did.

FORD: Yeah. And I just want to say to that we have a fantastic partner in Rory, pursue our director who joined us in this project about two years ago and has been instrumental in being relentless in focus and demanding and in integrity and digging in very current moment that we're in.

PRENTICE: And the show runs through. I want to make sure I get this right, mate, through May 7th at BCT. Great good luck for the next several weeks. And this looks unique, it looks important, it looks like it's essential. And indeed, a world premiere at BCT and the show is titled The Show on the Roof, and they are Alex Syiek and Tom Ford. Gentlemen, best of luck and congratulations.

FORD: Thank you so much.

SYIEK: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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