The Story Behind the PAPERBOY Musical

Photo by Steven Pisano

My best friend from my days at Rhodes College in Memphis is John Verlenden, a writer, poet, translator and retired as a tenured professor of rhetoric at the American University in Cairo. We are continually running ideas by each other.

I mentioned to him during a phone conversation in 2016 that I was thinking about writing a drama for stage based on my book. 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 good friend was joking.

John said that I needed to get in touch with a friend he grew up with on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. Jim Wann is a Tony nominee for a musical he wrote and starred in on Broadway in the 1980s –– Pump Boys and Dinettes.

After we connected, Jim started sending me MP3 files of songs he had composed on 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 thought we had something, but we realized we needed help to take it to the next 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.

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.

Photo by Steven Pisano

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 18 months 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 2023.

The musical premiered March 24-26 with four well-received performances. We are working to see that it progresses to a wider audience.