"What would you do if you had the opportunity to truly change the world? What would you be willing to sacrifice?"
According to Palo Alto High School's Michael Najar, those are the questions at the heart of "Venture," the new musical the school will premiere March 9. And Najar should know -- the music teacher and choir director is the show's creator.
"I'm from Los Angeles, where everyone thinks film will change the world, music will change the world, but there's not many places like Silicon Valley, where actual things that get done here actually change the world," he said. "I just think it's a fascinating time in the Valley."
"Venture" focuses on the experience of Saira Sidana, a young entrepreneur with great ideas but plenty of challenges to face as she makes her way through the Bay Area rat race. She has a mother who's already a tech legend, having paved the way for fellow women entrepreneurs; a boss who offers her an amazing opportunity but is morally questionable; sexual harassment issues; failed startups; pregnancy: a boyfriend having trouble dealing with it all and more.
Najar first got the idea for "Venture" several years ago, after reading about former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who was pregnant at the time she accepted the high-profile post. Though "Venture" isn't based on a true story, that "seemed like an operatic moment in the history of the Valley," Najar said. "That rang a bell for me." More recent developments, such as the #MeToo movement, also have had an impact on Najar's writing. In dealing with such prescient and sensitive topics, Najar said he strives to "make sure that I don't do all the typical trappings of being a man and trying to explain everything about being a woman, because I certainly would never do that."
In one song, a powerful male character (played by Robert Vetter) sings about having a target on his back and wonders if social media and "fake news" would have undone the great leaders of the past. "Take our names from the buildings and walls," he sings, "but the shadows remain."
Najar also studied up on the late Robert Noyce, founder of Intel and known as "The Mayor of Silicon Valley," who, unlikely though it seems, since he died in 1990, turns up as a character in the very timely "Venture."
"It's a musical; they take licenses whenever they want; they don't make any apologies for that," he said. "It's one of the reasons I love musicals, they're just so bizarre in some ways. You can do magic, and the mystery of time colliding and having a mentor from the past."
Though the seeds were planted years ago, most of the show was actually written more recently.
"I'm nothing without a deadline. When Kathleen (Woods, Paly theater teacher and co-director of the production) graciously agreed to do this last year, I hadn't written the bulk of the musical. I went, 'Oh, I just told her I'd written a musical. I'd better get cracking.'"
Najar takes his inspiration as it comes to him, whether it be in the form of melodies first or bits of lyrics, working on ideas at various coffee houses during summer break or at Paly during free moments, and recording demos at his home studio (his garage, which he calls, with a cheeky nod to "Hamilton," "The Room Where It Sometimes Happens").
He said he'd love to be able to write like Lin-Manuel Miranda or Stephen Sondheim but thinks his style might be closest to that of the composer of the quirky-yet-catchy melodies from "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and other hits, when asked about his closest musical-theater influences. "I think I could try to be a poor man's Andrew Lloyd Webber," he laughed.
Sophomore Sofia Peterson, who plays Saira, said that she's been doing theater for as long as she can remember but playing a lead role in a brand-new show has been a different -- and rewarding -- experience.
"It's a lot more flexible. I've been able to help create the character, which is nice. We're able to alter the keys of songs, help with changing what we think doesn't make sense and just have more of an impact on the script or on the show in general," she said.
"It is harder, though, because it is a new work, where things are constantly changing, which means that I'm constantly having to adapt to changes."
At a recent after-school rehearsal, Najar complimented one cast member for showing an impressive amount of energy and vigor. "She's a freshman!" an upperclassman pointed out, to peals of knowing laughter from the tired students. Najar grinned, then later suggested the actors playing adult characters think about that increasing feeling of world-weariness and use it in their performances.
Najar said that although he knew the show would premiere as a high-school production, he didn't feel the need to tailor it for teenagers.
"There are certain things I have to be delicate around, but that being said, there is not a musical that's been on Broadway that's 'appropriate' for high school students," he said. "Would I take it farther with adults? I think so. But our students rise up to the challenges. It's a very smart community."
He'd like to develop "Venture" further and hopes it will live on in future productions.
"I think it's a timely story, I think it has legs and I think it needs a lot of work. I want it to go to the next level," he said. But first and foremost, he's excited for the Paly premiere.
"I want as many people as possible to come and see the great work that everyone's doing," he said. "This is not solely mine; my colleagues have been fantastic."
Palo Alto audiences will no doubt enjoy catching familiar references and characters -- Caltrain commuters, tech bros, even a humorous nod to Paly's Renaissance-clothed Madrigal choir -- but Najar said the story is one that anyone can relate to, whether or not they're familiar with the local culture.
"This isn't just about Silicon Valley, in the same way that one of my favorite musicals, 'Rent,' isn't just about New York in the '90s," he said. "It's about love. All great musicals are about love in the end."
Where: Palo Alto High School Performing Arts Center, 50 Embarcadero Road.
When: Fridays and Saturdays, March 9-17, at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, March 15, at 4 p.m.; and Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m. There will be an IPO ("Initial Performance Opportunity") reception after the March 9 performance, at which audience members can meet the cast and production staff and partake in light refreshments.
Cost: $10 student/senior; $15 adult.
Info: Go to Paly Theatre.