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Hall County natives stage their musical off Broadway in New York

Two men pen and score production featuring Jimmy Carter and gospel-singing aliens

POSTED: August 3, 2014 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Cast members of "Jimmy! A Musical Fable with Almost No Historical Basis" rehearse a number in New York. Hall County natives Isaac Hopkins and Noah Haines penned and scored the musical. The duo staged the production in August 2013 with the Northeast Georgia Stage Actors Guild. It went on to win a National Theatre for Student Artists contest, earning it a spot to be performed off Broadway in New York. The musical opens Friday at the Irondale Center in the Brooklyn Arts District.

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Hall County natives Isaac Hopkins and Noah Haines wonder what gospel-singing aliens must sound like on an almost daily basis lately. Then again, so would Jimmy Carter if the former president had actually encountered an out-of-this-world species in 1969.

But a fictional Jimmy Carter actually encounters singing creature in Hopkins and Haines’ play “Jimmy! A Musical Fable with Almost No Historical Basis.” And soon, New York residents will hear the bizarre sounds of musical aliens, see Carter travel in a time machine and witness his decision to become an environmentalist as “Jimmy” opens Friday at the Irondale Center in the city’s Brooklyn Arts District. The Georgia duo garnered the prestige of having the play run for a week off Broadway after winning a contest sponsored by the National Theatre for Student Artists.

Musical collaboration

The musical sprang to life in Hopkins’ brain when he was a sophomore in high school after stumbling across a rather strange story about Carter.

“I was just browsing on Wikipedia one day and there was a tiny blurb on the page that said ‘Jimmy Carter UFO sighting’ and I immediately thought ‘This just has to be a musical,’” the 2012 Gainesville High School said. “It’s just too ridiculous to be anything else; there was no other way to tell the story.”

Hopkins pitched the idea in the spring of 2013 to his friend and a Buford graduate Haines, who he met at the 2012 International Thespian Conference in Nebraska. By August, in typical speedy Hopkins-and-Haines fashion, the show was on stage with the Northeast Georgia Stage Actors Guild, complete with full script and songs to tell the fabricated story of Carter’s quest to find out if he saw a UFO in 1969.

“I think they’re like Rodgers and Hammerstein,” said Pam Ware, Gainesville High School theater director. “I think they feed off of each other with their creativity. Isaac may have an idea for a story that he wants to tell through lyrics and Noah can take that and in a matter of minutes create the most exciting and interesting piece of music.”

Interesting appears to be understatement when it comes to the dynamic duo. They have written several plays together, including a holiday musical titled “We Three Queens,” which was produced upstairs at Inman Perk Coffee in downtown Gainesville last year. The pair also collaborated on Haines’ newest brainchild tentatively titled “258,” a more somber musical based on the lives of men drafted into the Vietnam War and the days preceding their departure.

Changes and chances

As for “Jimmy,” the opening number is quirky itself. Titled “Say Yes or No, Did You See the UFO?,”reporters in a press conference and on the streets of Atlanta sing the tune to kick start the musical.

Hopkins and Haines made several changes to the songs and script, including a change of scenery in the first song, up until opening night last summer in North Georgia. Now in New York, the two men continue to make edits to the show.

“The running joke last summer was that every time we would run into a problem, we would always say ‘Oh, we’ll fix it in the off-Broadway production,’” Hopkins said.

The chance for the show to be staged in a larger venue was there, since Hopkins entered “Jimmy” in the National Theatre for Student Artists’ playwright contest. To Haines at the time, it was merely a joke and dream.

“I actually entered it before I told Noah I was going to,” Hopkins said. “I have sort of a slew of plays at this point. It was just one in sort of a list that we hoped to work on again, and it just happened to be sooner than we thought.”

Haines found out about the entry and the win all at the same time.

“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Haines said. “I was on my way to dinner, and he called me. And when Isaac calls you, it’s either something important or a crazy idea. I didn’t have a lot of time to talk, so he left me a voicemail and I listened to it, and he said ‘Noah, someone wants to do our show in New York, call me back.’”

Suddenly, all of the jokes and the pair began preparing for a summer in the city while simultaneously working on a children’s musical for Gainesville Parks and Recreation, which sponsors Pam Ware’s summer program. Although the pair works quickly most of the time, editing “Jimmy” again and working on “Bugaboo” for the children’s program forced the pair into overdrive. Neither had time to let the news of their success sink in.

“It really didn’t hit me until like a week before I left (for New York),” Haines said. “I was just so busy music directing at Buford (High School) and scoring these two shows at once.”

When Haines originally composed the lyrics in August 2013, he recorded himself singing the songs and sent them to the actors who would be singing.

“Then Isaac told me we would be doing it up here,” Haines said. “So I had to score the whole thing for other people.”

Production process

Because of the men’s busy lives, they couldn’t help cast the show in New York. The college students were finishing up finals and video chatted with the producers in New York.

“They actually cast about 90 percent of the show in May before we got up here,” said Hopkins, who along with Haines will have to leave in the middle of “Jimmy’s” run to return to classes in Georgia. “We were still a large a part of that process; we were Skyped into the rehearsal room.”

Once they arrived in New York, they immediately delved into the production. They worked to craft it exactly as they had envisioned, complete with songs sung by an alien choir, a time machine to transport Jimmy and Billy Carter into the past and the tale of the killer rabbit.

“Obviously, they are real people, so that gives us a good jumping off point,” Hopkins said. “The goal was showing them as figures who are so single-minded and want something so much that it propels them into song and dance and these wacky antics, and then we get to pick and choose about the mythology behind Jimmy and Billy.”

Although tales of Jimmy and Billy Carter made it all the way North, Haines and Hopkins faced some challenges to bring a play based in Georgia to a New York stage.

“I was completely blown away just by how much work we had to do on Southern accents, and speech patterns and colloquialisms,” Hopkins said. “The way that we build language down here is altogether very different.”

The pair also had to change sounds of songs and alter musical aspects for the characters. But the juxtaposition of some characters with music styles is another unique aspect signifying Hopkins and Haines’ ideas and senses of humor.

“Musically, that’s where we find a lot of our comedy,” Haines said. “We will have songs sung by a character you don’t know, and that is the joke. We have similar senses of humor and similar taste in theater, so (working together) is easy in that sense.”

One of the most comedic elements in “Jimmy!” is, indeed, a trio of gospel-singing aliens that ultimately force Carter to adopt a certain stance on the environment during his presidency.

“The song is sung by the three aliens when Jimmy goes back in time to figure out if he did actually see the aliens,” Haines said. “The aliens sing to Jimmy and Billy about how they are roaming the galaxy because they have used up the resources on their planet. The whole idea behind that is that it’s how Jimmy became such an environmentalist president.”

Southern style

Hopkins and Haines pride themselves on having unique character elements in their plays and a variety of music, all of which come together in “Jimmy.”

“The hardest part for me was that this is such a stylized show,” Haines said. “It’s set in the ’70s in the South, and it was hard making things sound different because I didn’t want to write a musical where every song sounds the same.”

Hopkins described the style Haines created as “a musical smorgasbord of the South.”

As a whole, many may call the play “strange,” “wacky,” or “bizarre,” but Hopkins emphasized the public response has been mostly positive.

“I think people have just been immensely entertained by it,” he said. “Whatever sides of the political fence people fall on, people generally think Jimmy Carter is a great person.”

Ware, who has read a number of Hopkins’ plays since he started writing them in eighth grade, noted the duo must have impressed the National Theatre for Student Artists because two plays are normally selected for production but only “Jimmy” was chosen this season. Part of what Ware enjoys about the pair and the musical is the extensive research behind the plot to ensure the truth behind the fiction.

“I read ‘Jimmy’ and I thought this is a young man who has done his research,” she said. “I thought it was a little bizarre but very interesting and very entertaining.”

Hopkins and Haines are looking to produce “Jimmy” when they return to Georgia but are embracing the experience right now and focusing on making the play the best it can be. They are also meeting new people in the industry ­and enjoying some New York eats.

“I love pizza, so that’s been fun,” Haines said, laughing. “Just meeting all these people has been really great.”

Hopkins is thrilled about the opportunity but admits how emotional it will be to see his work in a full off-Broadway production.

“What I expect to become very emotional about this is, there has been so much support from the people in Gainesville who have believed in these ideas and these shows,” he said.

Ware added Hopkins and Haines are shining as one of many talents who have come out of North Georgia and she hopes the community will continue supporting the arts in the same fashion.

“We have got a wealth of talent,” she said. “I just really hope that the community continues to support the talent that we have throughout because we are so blessed in this Hall County area.

“I think it’s going to be an incredibly exciting experience.”


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