When the rights to "Les Misérables" proved too expensive, Palo Alto High School drama instructor and director Kristen Lo had to pick another show. Then she remembered choir teacher Michael Najar's pet project. Two years ago, Najar had described a musical he had written set against the Los Angeles freeway system.
When Najar played Lo some of the tunes and outlined the plot, she realized he wasn't using the term "musical" loosely.
"The more songs he played, the more he told me of the characters — it had political messages, it had a love story, it had all the great aspects of a musical," Lo said. "I thought it would be great to stage."
Although staging an unheard-of, untested work provoked grumbling from a few students, they quickly learned the show goes on — with or without them.
For the first time in recent memory, a faculty member's work will take center stage for the school's spring production. Inspired by a real-life, ongoing scuffle between South Pasadena and Alhambra, "Love Songs In Traffic" will premiere at Paly's Haymarket Theatre on March 17.
The urban song-fest revolves around the love connection between Dave, a Caltrans worker; and Sarah, a daughter of South Pasadena preservationists; as they clash over a freeway expansion that would disturb picturesque "South Pas."
Now, as the cast practices changing lanes with their prop vehicles during the opening number, "Are You In My Mirror," the road seems to have smoothed itself out.
When "Traffic" was first green-lighted last year, some students' eyebrows went up. A few who had eagerly anticipated doing a blockbuster such as "Les Miz" were more vocal about their disappointment.
A mini-drama surfaced when Paly's school newspaper, The Campanile, published a story on the matter a month before auditions. Two students, using pseudonyms, said an unknown show wouldn't draw audiences. Perhaps indicative of the stress that high-achieving teens feel over resumes and applications, the students claimed that doing an unknown production would harm their chances of getting accepted into music conservatories.
A likelier scenario is that conservatories, which usually audition applying seniors between January and March, will look at trial performances above all else.
"We wouldn't view an unknown musical as a detriment," said Alexander Brose, director of admission at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "For a stand-alone conservatory like ours, we look at their audition. We certainly look at recommendations and high-school transcripts. But I think an unknown musical is kind of an interesting thing to do."
Having worked in musical theater before, Najar expected some gripes. Yet he and Lo felt the newspaper story inaccurately depicted a tense teachers-versus-students climate.
"It bothered me that The Campanile published a story based on one student's opinion and then titled it 'controversial musical,'" Najar said, but added that the story itself was less worrisome than the headline. "The content didn't bother me. If you hang out around a theater long enough, there's a reason we have drama kings — and drama queens — for that matter."
Any tension seems to have evaporated. After the article came out, Lo initiated class discussions about everyone's anxieties. Except for some of her students who had to focus on grades, most tried out in the end. About three-fourths of the 32-member cast is enrolled in the drama program. Some contend that only a small segment of the drama crowd is made of musical-theater buffs who take production choices seriously.
"I really don't agree with any of them," said Sarah Ferguson, a senior who plays Karen, Sarah's well-to-do mother. "I think it's really exciting to do something no one has ever done."
Others aren't worried that unfamiliarity will breed disinterest.
"I can't see it making less people come," said senior Danya Taymor, president of Paly's Thespian Society, who plays a "Traffic" radio DJ. "Our one-act festival, where the plays are written by students, draws one of our biggest audiences."
Of course, Najar wants to get more foot traffic beyond the obligatory parents and friends.
"I hope with this one, we'll get people who are theatergoers who want to hear and see something new and different," Najar said. "'Into the Woods,' do we need to see it again? I love 'Into the Woods' but somewhere in Palo Alto, 24-seven, there's always a production of it going on."
Although not as biting as Stephen Sondheim, "Traffic" definitely has a satirical edge with its playful pokes at the warring cities and their political antics. Some of the dramatic moments spliced in amid all the comedy will come from the couple-to-be, Dave and Sarah. Their attraction, of course, culminates in a romantic number, "For You."
Najar hesitates to compare the musical to any particular Broadway show. But he said he wanted the 16 musical numbers to encompass a broad spectrum of genres. They include 1950s doo-wop, a jazzy love song crooned by a guy to his car and a standard big-Broadway tune with the chorus. Elements of hip hop, rock 'n' roll and the tango will also be heard.
Having the playwright-composer-lyricist just steps away has taught students the challenges of the workshop process. New musicals typically undergo various changes before their debut. Alterations could be anything from cutting a song to speeding a scene's pace. Broadway-bound shows are usually developed through previews in major cities.
For opening night at Paly, Najar is listening to what his performers think.
During rehearsal, Najar is clearly still tweaking music and dialogue. Most of the cast have embraced this since the tweaks aren't coming from just one direction.
"If something doesn't feel right or you can add something, you can do that," Ferguson said. "He gives you greater ability to develop the character and make your character your own person."
Freshman Jovan Bennett, who won the role of Dave, has adapted to taking on changes at each rehearsal.
"I think it's not that hard because I am a fast learner," said Bennett, whose twin brother, Joerelle, is also in the cast. "I think that it's always exciting to see what new thing or song or lines (Mr. Najar) has for me or for anyone."
Helping to workshop a musical, Lo said, can only be an invaluable learning experience for students. There are fewer challenges in directing an established show that has already been staged a certain way many times over.
"I know it's scary for them. It's a new work — will anyone come? But I feel like I'm doing a disservice to my kids to not show them this side of theater," Lo said.
The choir instructor has no qualms about collaborating with students on minute details. To him, their input reaffirms their commitment to the show. Inclusive by nature, Najar doesn't mind retooling songs to suit someone's voice range. He even offered extra rehearsal during the week-long winter break, telling students: "I need you to believe in this. I will do anything for you to get this right."
The show's unique visual aspects should also stand out. For the freeway scenes, the actors needed makeshift cars they could get in and out of easily. Parent Dan Nitzah devised a prototype rebar frame. Worn with suspenders, the steel frames have extensions representing a rearview mirror and steering wheel. As in a Flintstones cartoon, the actors' feet do the driving. They also plan to decorate their "cars" with furry dice, bumper stickers and other auto adornments.
Paly's music teacher since 2003, Najar — a former Alhambra resident — has spent plenty of time in traffic. He had always been intrigued by the Interstate-710 conflict, which has dragged on for more than 40 years. The 23-mile freeway runs south-to-north from Long Beach to Alhambra, with major congestion. But an extended freeway would cut through South Pasadena, which Najar compares to Atherton in terms of income and ambience. The city has spent millions fighting the idea, even paying a special litigation tax.
The musical spin on the saga couldn't have wrapped if Najar hadn't relocated to the Peninsula.
"I couldn't finish this until I moved out of L.A. I couldn't get a new perspective," he said.
L.A. touches will definitely be felt throughout the show. Najar has recruited a high school pal to help arrange the music. A composer for TV and film, his friend has written music for such shows as "Desperate Housewives" and the cable movie "Reefer Madness."
Whether or not "Traffic" is received well critically, Najar will have no regrets. Youthful "rock-star" ambitions behind him, he gets a high from hearing his lyrics and music come out of someone else's mouth.
"The other day, a kid came in the class humming one of my songs. I don't think he knew I was there. That's such a privilege to have anyone appreciate it."
What: "Love Songs In Traffic," a new musical by Paly choir teacher Michael Najar
Where: Palo Alto High School's Haymarket Theatre, 50 Embarcadero Road
When: The show opens Friday, March 17, at 8 p.m. with a gala, dance and silent auction afterward. Additional show times are March 22 at 4 p.m. and March 18, 23, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for adults. The opening night gala is $20.
Info: For tickets and information, call (650) 329-3857