“Junie B. Jones” is a fictional character created by author Barbara Park. Park's "Junie B. Jones" books, chronicling Junie's adventures with her group of quirky friends, have sold more than sixty million copies across the globe. In 2005, the series was re-created as musical theater set to melodies written by the award-winning songwriting team of Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. Goldrich and Heisler worked closely with Barbara Park to remain true to the essence of the series. The comical, family-friendly show follows Junie through a new school year that includes new glasses, bossy classmates, singing lunch ladies, kickball tournaments, juggling biscuits and much more.
“Junie B. Jones: The Musical" was originally produced Off-Broadway by Theatreworks USA and was adapted from material in four of the "Junie B. Jones" books. In Jan. 2017 the first-ever recording of the show, titled "Junie B. Jones The Musical Cast Album," will be released. Recently, songwriters Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler spoke to AXS about their experiences working on the project:
AXS: How and when did you decide to become musicians and lyricists?
Marcy Heisler (MH): From the time I was very little, I was performing and writing poetry. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t write or sing, and I was lucky enough to have a family who encouraged me on both levels. I originally went to Northwestern to be an actress, but when I wrote for the student run Variety show, I knew I had found my true calling. While I love to perform, and continue to do so, making things that last, building shows and characters from the ground up, and watching talented artists bring them to life is what it’s all about; first and foremost, I am a lyricist.
Zina Goldrich (ZG): I started music when I was three years old, so music has always been a significant part of my life. My father, in addition to be an obstetrician, was an excellent jazz trumpeter and played with the Mel Lewis and Thad Jones Big Band at the Village Vanguard and so I grew up with these amazing musicians in my house. There was never I moment where I didn’t think I was going to be a musician. I found songwriting somewhere around 4th or 5th grade, and by high school I was writing steadily. I had my first professional credit at 16 years old co-writing the television theme song for “One of the Boys” starring Mickey Rooney. Once I had gotten that, I figured I should stick with it.
AXS: Growing up, what kinds of music interested you?
MH: Being born in 1967, my earliest influences were eclectic and melodic – everything from Three Dog Night, Mama Cass, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and of course, the ubiquitous soundtrack to Hair. I was from a very young age mesmerized by That’s Entertainment and Singing in the Rain, and I loved the old Bette Midler albums. I have to say, however, that everything clicked for me when I heard the soundtrack to A Chorus Line. To hear people tell their stories like that – to truly get to know people through Ed Kleban’s lyrics…I was hooked. Many people who heard that album wanted to become dancers – I wanted to become Ed Kleban!
ZG: I loved Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and most pop music on the radio. They used to have a lot story songs and it seemed to fit musical theatre very well. I was also studying classical music, and going to theatre, so all of those styles mixed together.
AXS: How did you break into the music industry?
MH: My first professional gig was in the children’s chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I was in their 1980 and 1981 seasons…so from a very young age I was exposed to how professional theatre works. From there, I studied privately and in school, and after college I enrolled in the BMI musical theatre writing workshop, where I met Zina. Our first professional job together was writing some songs for a documentary on Internet learning – but I guess you could say “Dear Edwina” was our first professional collaboration. We wrote the show from scratch and were lucky enough to get it licensed by MTI, thanks to an introduction by the wonderful Maury Yeston.
ZG: I was always writing songs in high school. My mother had a friend whose daughter was a lyricist and we began writing together during that time. I got an opportunity to submit a song that I wrote with a friend for a television theme song. Several months later, I heard that they chose our song! It ran for only one season, but I was very proud to have a piece of music heard so publicly.
AXS: Have you always focused on music that is kid and/or family friendly?
MH: I have a background in family theatre as a performer in Chicago – it certainly was something I grew up in and around – so while I don’t only do that, it’s a very important kind of theatre and close to my heart. I love the all-age shared aspect of the experience, and to this day, kids are the smartest audiences ever. They speak the truth, and there’s nothing better than wondering if a joke is going to work and hearing a kid laugh. Of course, the other way round happens too – and I have found that to be helpful as well in the writing process. I love the way kids think – I’m ever grateful for the chance to work for and with them in this way.
ZG: Often for aspiring writers, the first jobs available are for children’s theatre. Marcy and I found that we had a voice that worked very well for the genre, and so we’ve continued over the years because we love it so much.
AXS: The “Junie B. Jones” books are very popular. How did you get involved with the project to bring these stories to the theatrical stage?
MH: Theatreworks USA was kind enough to hire us to work on this project – so Junie B kind of fell into my life and lap! I think Junie B and I share some qualities, I must admit…we’re both quirky, and make up words, wore eye patches, had dogs and siblings, and stubbed our toes on occasion, literally and figuratively. But what I personally love most about Junie B is how much she loves to write, how much she genuinely cares, and what her family means to her. It was a great gift to all of us that Barbara Park wrote such a wonderful, ebullient, creative girl – and the chance to make her sing is truly one of the highlights of my creative life.
AXS: What were some of the challenges of translating a book series into a musical play?
MH: Junie B has such a unique way of speaking – there’s real music and a specificity to her rhythms. I was lucky for the chance to work closely with Barbara, who really taught me Junie B’s language firsthand, while also giving me freedom to put my own lyrical spin on things. The Junie B books are full of multiple characters both young and old, and we had to figure out how to double and triple cast the characters to tell the story in the funniest and clearest way. We tried a lot of iterations of which character sings what – and we’re still working on it!
AXS: How many songs did you write for the show? Do you have a favorite? Were any particularly challenging? Why?
MH: Oh, you know the old saying…songs are like babies! I couldn’t possibly choose, and all of them were/are beloved and challenging for various reasons. I love how “Top Secret Personal Beeswax” captures Junie B’s spirit, not to mention the phenomenal choreography and staging of Dev Janki and Peter Flynn that makes that number so special and fun. (Though of course, those who listen to the album can make up their own dances!) “You Can Be My Friend” captures such a sweet, specific, vulnerable time – and “Writing Down the Story of My Life” is basically my theme song. The challenge was basically how to figure out what each quirky charcter would sing and what their particular sound and style would be, á la Motown for “Lucille, Camille, Chenille,” Broadway for “Gladys Gutzman,” etc.
ZG: I have to agree with Marcy on the favorites, although I love them all. What’s the point of writing if you don’t like what you’re writing? I’ll add “Lunch Box” to the list, and perhaps “Gladys Gutzman.”
AXS: You worked with the late Barbara Park on this. What were her feelings about seeing her books turned into shows?
MH: We talked many times over the phone, and I was lucky enough to share a performance with her during the Free Summer Theatre Off-Broadway run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. She seemed to be happy her characters came to life in this way – and I hope she liked it! We all certainly tried to do her and the world she created proud.
ZG: It’s a great loss that we won’t have any more Junie B. stories from Barbara. She was a unique and joyful voice, and I feel lucky that she saw the show and liked it.
AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding experience involving your career?
MH: To get to write with my best friend every day. Not that it’s always easy, not that it always comes out quickly or as we expected – and not that every project goes as planned. But I get to make things that sing with someone who truly speaks my language. There is nothing better than that.
ZG: Marcy said it. We get to write together every day, and that is the greatest joy. It’s always interesting, and we’re laughing most of the time…even when we’re pulling out our hair trying to figure something out. She’s an amazing lyricist and I am one lucky composer.
AXS: Where do you hope to be in ten years?
MH: Looking back on ten more years working in the theatre!
ZG: Healthy, wealthy, and wise. But seriously, as long as I get to write music I’ll be a happy person.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a musician?
MH: Talking about being a musician takes as much time as being one, so you might as well be one. Use your own voice. Save some money. Spend some money. Find the correct family of collaborators and there is nothing you cannot do. Don’t expect it all to happen at once, and don’t let mistakes define you. Be loud. Listen often and well. Surround yourself with people who make you happy and learn things and want to get to work. You don’t know the half of it…always-- and that’s pretty much the fun of it. Sing when no one’s looking and everyone’s looking. Make new things every day.
ZG: Keep at it. Don’t give up. Practice. A lot. Life gives you curves. You never know where or when the best opportunities will arise. Just pursue every avenue with energy and love.
AXS: Are there any upcoming projects and/or events that you would like to mention?
MH: Zina and I will be performing in two concerts in New York at 54 Below on Jan 25 and February 2. We’re also looking forward to the Broadway Junior Festival in Atlanta this January, and have some other things in the works we will be announcing soon!
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