The BAck SToRY
“Holy crap - what just came out of my mouth?”
Randall Craig was just being told that chemo for his aggressive form of leukemia would not be effective, and that the treatment was going to be stopped. His only chance of survival was a Bone Marrow Transplant - if only a donor could be found. That was in 2017. We caught up with him recently, and asked about how this experience translated into Who is Esther.
LJ: First of all, we’re very happy to be doing this interview – are you out of the woods?
RC: I’m thrilled to be here as well, and I’ve got good momentum. I’m certainly not out of the woods, but I remain very positive. Thankfully there was one person in the world who was a bone marrow match - so yes, I'm still here.
LJ: Tell us about your decision to write the musical…
RC: I was at an extremely low point, and the future looked bleak. My family and friends were gathered around my bed – it really was touch-and-go. I figured that if I were to survive, then in my extended recovery period, I would need something to do. I blurted out that I would write a broadway-style musical. And then I thought: Holy crap – what just came out of my mouth!
LJ: Is that all you thought?
RC: Yes, at first. Then I did two things. I ordered a ton of books from Amazon: from choral arranging to jazz voicings to a ton of books on history. Reading was tough at that time of my treatment, but getting the books ordered, and seeing the pile of them sitting there was motivating. The second thing I did was get a full digital piano for my hospital room. It took up a lot of space, but it was pivotal. I played that piano for hours, every day. It was in Princess Margaret Cancer Centre where I turned my improvisational work into the melodies within Who is Esther. I felt that I was on a mission writing the musical; and it was also nice to share it with all of the patients, families, and medical staff.
LJ: So what is your musical pedigree?
RC: Perhaps like most people, I started in high school. For me it was the flute, piccolo, then sax (alto and baritone). I took a first year university performance course, again on flute, and later, adult flute lessons.
As a teenager, I started writing music, which is very difficult to do on a woodwind. So I started to play my parents’ piano – usually 2-3 hours every day. There is no substitute for piano practice… except perhaps piano lessons, which sadly I didn’t take. So every day in the hospital I did the piano exercises that I avoided as a child, just to improve my dexterity.
LJ: Tell me about Who is Esther…
RC: The main character, Esther, is a modern-day heroine who inspires people to believe that everyone - no matter their beginnings or background – has it within themselves to make a positive difference.
The story itself has a long pedigree: like Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Esther story is 2500 years old. Who is Esther has heroes, villains, love interests, and several plot twists.
It is set in the present day, and like our diverse society, has a diverse musical style, from funk, to rap, rock, and fusion. Its message is timeless, the music enticing, and the themes resonate in today's world of #Metoo, #BLM, corporate greed, social justice, and the ability to drive change in a society fraught with systemic issues.
LJ: What’s the story?
RC: Picture Mr. Verious, the chauvinistic CEO of a major corporation. Everything is going well for him, until his female VP quits due to his sexual advances. To recruit a replacement, he decides to hold a singing contest. Esther, a street-wise young women from the ‘hood competes. To the surprise of all (except her), she wins and is appointed as the new VP.
Ham, Verious’ conniving advisor, doesn’t like Esther or people like her, and slyly plots their demise. Esther finds the courage to speak truth to power: she turns the tables on Ham, and holds Verious to account. Esther is a changemaker, and by the end of the play, the audience realizes that they can be, too.
LJ: Was there a particular turning point in the musical’s history?
RC: Can I say three? I still remember, shortly after my transplant, opening up the computer and writing the first song. I thought it was excellent. The next day, not so much so – which meant a complete re-write, one of many that I would later do. The next turning point was when the first draft of the manuscript was finished: I had finally figured out how to move the story into the present, yet still be true to the underlying characters and story. The third turning point was when I put the finishing touches on the music for the Finale, and played it for my wife. The finale is a very complex piece that weaves so many of the melodies together in a very powerful way.
LJ: Powerful how so?
RC: The finale finishes the story, and does so in the context of a battle between good (Esther) and evil (Ham, her antagonist). In the end, Esther and the chorus are singing the anthem song We Are Believers, while pictures of some of the heroes who also stood up for the rights of others are projected in the background: from Nelson Mandela, to Martin Luther King Jr, to Mother Teresa, to many more. In the end, the audience realizes that Esther's story is really ours. And Who is Esther? Esther is us. A very powerful realization.
LJ: Is there anything that you were particularly proud of?
RC: We had a “Musical Preview Event” for an early version of the manuscript and soundtrack. There were about 100 folks at the event. You couldn’t imagine how awesome it was to hear all of the audience singing together during the finale – it was electric!
LJ: So what’s next for Who is Esther?
RC: Next up: recording the soundtrack with professional singers, embedding their feedback, and then bringing it to the stage. Eventually, and hopefully, a Tony.