Ten years ago, the composer Adam Gwon emerged.
Roundabout Underground, a new venue for young writers, had chosen Mr. Gwon’s “Ordinary Days,” a four-character chamber piece about adrift New Yorkers, as its first musical. The New York Times called him “a promising newcomer to our talent-hungry musical theater.” Goodbye chrysalis, hello butterfly.
Professional and amateur companies clamored for the rights, Audra McDonald added the musical’s song “I’ll Be Here” to her repertory, saying that it had “grabbed my heart, ripped it out and showed it to me bleeding in front of my face.” Commissions kept coming. New York’s talent-hungry musical theater slavered for a follow-up. No follow-up came.
Mr. Gwon, 39, who lives with his boyfriend, the actor John Wascavage, in an apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, never went anywhere. Or to put it another way, he went everywhere. He wrote half a dozen new musicals (“The Boy Detective Fails,” “Cloudlands,” and “Cake Off,” among others) and saw most of them staged at regional theaters, though they didn’t attract many subsequent productions. Former colleagues made it to Broadway or near enough. He didn’t. He was pretty sure he didn’t mind.
“All of those people illustrate that it’s possible,” he said.
That seemed so healthy. I asked him if he went to therapy. He tried it, he said. But he didn’t like it. “Writing is my therapy,” he explained.
Mr. Gwon was speaking on a recent weekday afternoon in a lounge at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. His drab shirt and crinkled jeans matched the tattered couch. Like his songs, he is funny, urbane, with a sweetness that doesn’t cloy. He has a fizzy, artless laugh and a maximal smile that makes him look like a kid who has somehow grown a beard.
He was in previews for “Scotland, PA,” a bleak and lusty musical comedy about the perils of ambition, which opens at the Pels on Oct. 23. It’s the most ambitious show of his career.
Raised in Baltimore, he started writing musicals almost accidentally, when an acting teacher at New York University heard him messing around at the piano and suggested that his talents might lie there. After college, he spent a few years working as an assistant in Roundabout’s development office (his first day of work: Sept. 11, 2001) and won a Dramatists Guild Fellowship that allowed him to study with the “Ragtime” writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
Ms. Ahrens was impressed, she wrote in an email, with “his incredible melodic gift and his great technique. It was coupled with some of the most honest, droll and touching lyrics I had heard in a long time.”
During that fellowship he began “Ordinary Days,” the show that set a template for his next several projects. He sometimes thought about trying something grander, something that would get him back to New York. (It’s not the only place to make a career as a musical theater composer, but if you’re hoping to make a living on rights and royalties, it helps.)
But commissions kept him afloat and “every month that went by that I could pay my rent because I was writing musicals was exciting to me,” he said, apologizing for how “incredibly cheesy” that sounded.
Five years ago, Mr. Gwon decided that he should fulfill his Roundabout commission, which he had accepted during “Ordinary Days.” He speed-dated potential book writers, including the playwright Michael Mitnick, who pitched him an adaptation of the 2001 cult film “Scotland, PA.” A black comedy riff on “Macbeth,” with a side of fries, it tells the story of Mac, a 1970s fast-food worker, and his ruthless wife, Pat.
After a decade mired at minimum wage, Mac meets three stoners who predict a glorious future for him. He and Pat murder their boss and take over his burger joint. Success? He’s lovin’ it. Until tragedy places an order.
Something in Mr. Gwon’s gut insisted that this was a story he needed to tell. The premise was clever, the plot juicy, the ’70s setting inviting to a classic rock fan like him. But that wasn’t it. A week ago, watching a preview, he finally figured out the pull. “Oh my gosh,” he realized, “this is about characters who are stuck in one place and how are they going to climb up to the next level.” That is his story, too.
“I’ve been very happy and felt very successful,” he said. “At the same time, there might be three stoner voices in my head saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing great, but Broadway’s right there. What are you going to do about it?’ And I think it is a question, and a struggle that I don’t necessarily have an answer to, other than to write a rock musical about it.”
I asked Mr. Gwon, whom several colleagues described as the nicest man they have ever met, if he had ever considered murdering his rivals as an option. He laughed. He didn’t say no.
He conceived “Scotland, PA,” he said, as an opportunity to “show the New York theater community that I could do something on a bigger scale.” But during previews he worried that maybe he went too far.
“There’s a fear that I put something bigger and bolder out there, and everyone goes, ‘Why don’t you keep writing the quiet little musicals in the basement?’” he said. He was afraid enough that throughout our conversation he would only refer to “Macbeth” as the Scottish play.
The “Scotland, PA” songs are mostly ’70s pastiche, groovier, rootsier, more rockish tunes than the American-songbook-inspired numbers of “Ordinary Days.” Which makes Mr. Gwon’s style difficult to pin down.
The director Lonny Price, who helped to develop “Scotland, PA,” put it this way: “When you listen to an Adam song in a score, you think, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely song,’ but you don’t think, ‘God what a genius.’ He’s serving the piece. He gets out of the way, he gives it to you and he allows the performer to shine.”
Mr. Price called his music “catchy in a good way.” Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout, described it as commercial, then walked that back. “His music is just enjoyable,” he said.
“He knows what he does best, and he’s doing it,” Ms. Ahrens told me. “The world will catch up.”
Mr. Gwon isn’t sure it when. It might take another 10 years. Or more. He hopes not, but he can imagine it, his hair a little grayer, his eyes a little worse, probably still drinking his usual skinny vanilla latte. For now, his ambitions are modest, not homicidal.
“I plan to just keep myself busy writing musicals,” he said. “That seems to be the thing that gets me through.”
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