By Marlo Ihler
Roger Bean, writer and director of The Marvelous Wonderettes, has spent nearly his entire life in the theatre. Now a director, creator, writer, and producer, he is primarily known for turning golden oldies into entertaining jukebox musicals.
He was born March 20, 1962, to Ron and Lois Bean and was raised in Seattle along with his three siblings. He grew up as part of a family who loved music and the arts. When he was eight, his mother took him to drama school, where “the theatre grabbed him,” she once said. “I think he knew deep down since he was little what he wanted to do” (Goff, Nadine,“Madison Rep goes back in time with ‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’” [Wisconsin State Journal, July 26, 2002]). He credits his mother for his musical talent and the primary influence on his career choice.
He also credits his mother for inspiring his love of music from the ’50s and ’60s and, in particular, girl group music. She was part of a singing group in high school as well as being a varsity song leader, and he recalls her constantly singing around the house when he was growing up.
Bean’s first experience writing music was also with his mother. He reminisces that during his youth they would rewrite lyrics to popular and Broadway songs that they would include in plays and melodramas for church productions. “So I was writing jukebox musicals when I was a teenager,” he said. “I had no idea it would turn into a career so many years later” (Personal interview, January 31, 2013).
“So I blame and give credit to my mother for everything,” he added (Bean, Roger, “My Wonderettes World” [Broadway.com, Sept. 23, 2008]).
He credits his father for inspiring his sense of humor and his belief that he could do anything he set his mind to. His father was an entrepreneur who ran his own restaurant company, and thus Bean grew up thinking he, too, would someday be his own boss. “I guess that’s why I became a director, and a writer, and now run my own company” (personal interview).
After high school, Bean attended various colleges: BYU-Hawaii, Brigham Young University, and University of Texas-Austin. Ultimately he completed his theatre degree at Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University) in Cedar City where he had a theatre assistantship. He went on to get his master of fine arts degree with a double emphasis in theatre administration and directing from Wayne State University in Detroit.
“My graduate school was formative because it was truly sink or swim—we had to learn by doing, and all of the graduate students were essentially running a major repertory theatre. I just had to jump in and do it,” he said (personal interview).
In 1988, he returned to Cedar City as the associate marketing director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. He worked in this position for a couple of years before he became the director of marketing and public relations.
“It was great to have a job so quickly after graduate school. . . . Utah Shakes helped me get ready for New York City” (personal interview).
He left Utah for the Big Apple in 1992 and immediately began working at Circle Rep, a major off-Broadway theatre. He also worked as a press agent for Jeffrey Richards in New York City. After a few years he realized he wanted to get back to directing, something he had not done since going to school and had only done minimally while working at the Festival.
The timing could not have been better. The Festival invited Bean to direct A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1995, followed by The Mikado in 1996. He also directed My Fair Lady for Skylight Opera Theatre (now Skylight Music Theatre) in Milwaukee during this time.
While in Milwaukee, he met with the artistic staff from Milwaukee Rep to inquire about directing there, and they suggested he submit an idea for a show that would work in their cabaret performance space. After seeing a show there, he realized that the show that would fit the best would essentially be like what he had done with his mother growing up: taking existing songs and piecing them together with a storyline. “So I became a playwright really to give myself more directing work,” Bean admitted (personal interview).
Interesting to note that as he began writing his first new musical, Don’t Touch That Dial! he had in mind the “crazy talent” of someone with whom he had worked in Cedar City: the one and only Brian Vaughn (now artistic director at the Festival).
The show, which was part of Milwaukee Rep’s 1997-98 season, was a big hit, and they wanted another show right away. At the time he was visiting his family in Seattle and he happened to have a conversation with his mother about her time in high school as a song leader and a member of a singing trio. And “that’s . . . where the germ of the idea came from” for his next hit, The Marvelous Wonderettes (Matsuda, Donnie, “Mr. Brand Man” [ArtsNFashion Magazine, February 2012]).
He used the inspiration from his mother as a starting point:
“And so it became the perfect creative inspiration for my new show. . . . High school song leaders, best friends, singing at the prom for their friends and boyfriends—what would happen to them? How would the songs they sing influence their lives? Could pop songs from the ’50s and ’60s actually become book songs just like in a real musical? That’s how The Marvelous Wonderettes came into being” (Calamia, Donald V, “A Few Minutes with Roger Bean, creator of The Marvelous Wonderettes” [www.encoremichigan.com]).
The first version, a one-act, took about nine months to write: six months spent just listening to music, narrowing down the songs to use, and then three more months to put it all together. It premiered at Milwaukee Rep in 1999.
In 2001 The Marvelous Wonderettes came back as an expanded two-act version at Milwaukee Rep, featuring Bets Malone as Suzy, a role that Bean wrote with her in mind. Since then, Bets has performed in numerous productions of the show all across the country, including an award-winning Los Angeles production in 2006, an off-Broadway production in 2008, and an original cast recording.
The Marvelous Wonderettes has been described as a “cotton candy-colored non-stop pop musical” and has garnered a huge fan base (Calamia). Unfortunately, one of Bean’s biggest fans, his mother, never got to see the show before she passed away in 2004.
Bean continued to write new musicals, most of which premiered at Milwaukee Rep. “They’ve been a great artistic home and helped me create a nice catalogue of work” (Melville, Lee, “Roger Bean’s ‘Dream’ comes true” [LA Stage Times, August 6, 2009]).
That “catalogue of work” includes That’s Amoré, Route 66, Beach Blanket Bash!, Winter Wonderettes, Honky Tonk Laundry, The Andrews Brothers, Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,and Life Could Be a Dream.
As the success and popularity of his shows increased, Bean felt the need to create his own licensing company, Steele Spring Theatrical Licensing. The full-time staff now handles all of the licensing of The Marvelous Wonderettes and a few of his other shows for theatres all over the country. This allows Bean the flexibility to travel in order to direct or remount shows regionally, and, if he’s lucky, to find time to write new shows.
In addition to Milwaukee Rep, his work as a director has been on stages nationwide, including The Laguna Playhouse, Ogunquit Playhouse, Delaware Theatre Company, San Jose Rep, Pittsburgh CLO, Northlight Theatre, California Music Circus, and, of course, here at the Festival. Besides directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1995 and The Mikado in 1996, he directed Damn Yankees in 1999 and the premier of Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical in 2007, and is slated to return with Bets Malone as choreographer for The Marvelous Wonderettes in 2013.
Bean is a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and the Dramatists Guild. He lives in Los Angeles with his partner of twelve years, Perry Steele Patton. When asked about his future projects, he says his plate is full, but gives no further details because “I always hate to jinx them” (personal interview). And as far as his writing goes, he says: “Mostly, I try to write things that I think my parents would enjoy” (Thielman, Sam, “Wandering wonder of stage” [Variety, June 26, 2009].