My best friend from my days at Rhodes College (known as “Southwestern” at Memphis back in the day) is John Verlenden, a writer, poet, translator and retired as a tenured professor of rhetoric at the American University in Cairo. We have been friends for more than half a century. We are continually running ideas by each other.

John read early versions of PAPERBOY, my novel about growing up with a stutter, when I was writing it and knew the story well. I mentioned to him during a phone conversation in 2016 that I was thinking about writing a drama for stage based on my story. I thought it might transfer well to the stage because of its finite universe (my Memphis neighborhood) and small cast.

Without missing a beat, John said (and I can still hear his words): “It should be a musical.” At first, I thought my friend John was joking.

“Well, that’s all well and good,” I said, “but I know less about musical theatre than I do about stage drama.”

John said that I needed to get in touch with a friend he grew up with on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn. Jim Wann is a Tony nominee for a musical he wrote and starred in on Broadway in the 1980s –– Pump Boys and Dinettes. Betty and I had enjoyed the musical at the New Harmony Theatre in Indiana in the early 2000s. I investigated Jim’s many other projects involving musical theatre.

I wrote Jim an email and waited . . . and waited. I almost had forgotten about it, but it turned out I had used an email address that he didn’t check often. We eventually exchanged pleasantries on a few phone calls. Jim read the book . . . and then the magic began to happen. Jim started sending me MP3 files of songs he had composed on his guitar. His lyrics were captivating. He understood my story implicitly and its Memphis roots. I could finally see how a musical could grow out of my autobiographical novel.

For 18 months, Jim and I dabbled with the musical book and Jim continued to write songs. We did a presentation at a private school on St. Simons Island, Ga., and a full reading with a theatre group in Asheville, N.C. Jim performed the music on his guitar.

We thought we had something, but we realized we needed help to take it to another level.

In 2019, Jim called on two of his theatre friends with whom he had worked, Don Stephenson and David Shenton. Don, an actor/director based in New York, is also from the Chattanooga area. David, a well-known composer and orchestrator, is from the United Kingdom and performs nationally and internationally on the piano and violin, occasionally at the same time (you need to see it to believe it.)

Don and his wife, Emily Loesser, the daughter of the late Broadway legend Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.), have four children. In addition to her stage and screen credits, Emily is a practicing speech-language pathologist. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

In November of 2019, we all met at the Stephenson’s apartment in New York. Don and Emily had taken my meager attempts at the script and had translated them into the true language of musical theatre. David worked his composer’s magic on Jim’s songs. We were off and running . . . and then COVID hit. All five of us used the next two years to massage and reimagine every scene.

Don and Emily workshopped the musical with students at the Manhattan School of Music in 2021 and 2022. Liza Gennaro, dean of the musical theatre department at MSM and an outstanding choreographer herself, agreed that the school would produce the musical in March 2023. Student tryouts began in the fall of 2022, a cast was chosen in December and nightly rehearsals began on Jan. 11, 2023, for the March 24-26 performances.

I have been fortunate enough to Zoom into some of the rehearsals. Don is a whirling dervish as a director, using all his experience and directorial savvy gained on and off Broadway. Emily adds her soft touch as a speech pathologist as well as a veteran performer. Jim continues to tweak lyrics to the 22 or so original songs. (I think he may have written close to 35 songs to get to what we needed.) David has his computer whirring to work out the score for a 16-piece orchestra. Liza Gennaro takes off her dean hat at night, adding artistic vitality as choreographer. The talent of the MSM students is amazing.

PAPERBOY has been translated from English into 16 languages. The 17th – the language of musical theatre – might be the most exciting.