Musical Monday: Heathers: The Musical

Heathers PlaybillName: Heathers: The Musical

Credits: Music, Lyrics, and Book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy.

Summary: A musical version of the 1988 movie “Heathers,” a dark comedy in which a brainy teenage misfit teams up with a rebellious outsider to take on the popular clique at a high school (all of whom are named “Heather”). Mayhem and murder ensue.

Dates: The show debuted in Los Angeles for a limited engagement in the fall of 2013. The Off-Broadway production opened in March 2014 and ran until August. Other performances include limited-run regional productions in San Francisco, Vancouver and Australia. There have been rumors that the show might make its way to Broadway, but nothing has been confirmed.

Rating: R (Based on the original movie – for swearing, violence & sexual content)

Heathers_The_Musical_Off-Broadway_PosterWhy This Musical: Why spotlight a musical that played Off-Broadway for less than six months? First of all, it’s based on a dark, but hilarious, 1980s cult movie that holds up after repeated viewings. Second, because the songs are fabulous—a mixture of snark, heartfelt emotion, and teen angst, with clever lyrics and sharp dialogue. Lots of great moments from the original movie are retained in the show, including key phrases, corn nuts, and croquet. The musical does deviate from the movie’s plot on certain points (in the musical, Veronica and Martha are best friends, rather than acquaintances), but it keeps true to the spirit of the movie. Best of all for someone like me, who’s “a sucker for happy endings,” the final song shines a ray of hope on life at Westerberg High, despite all that’s happened.

My Connection: I first saw the movie in the theatre when it came out in 1988, and since then, I’ve watched numerous times. It’s one of those classic 1980s films where certain phrases have become a part of pop culture. I had a chance to see the musical Off-Broadway at the New Stages Theatre when I was in New York City in 2014 with my daughter for a series of college tours. We had intended on seeing something else, but the lure of discounted tickets from TKTS swayed us. Choosing to see Heathers: the Musical was a gamble, as the reviews were mixed, but it paid off because my daughter and I loved the show. The small cast did a wonderful job and thoroughly engaged the audience. The cast recording came out in June 2014, and it’s been a regular fixture on my musicals playlist ever since.

Where to See It: Sadly, the show isn’t playing at any theatres right now, but the awesome cast recording is available on iTunes.

Favorite Songs:
“Candy Store”
“Dead Girl Walking”

Final Thoughts: If you’re a fan of the movie, and you aren’t offended by R-rated language, check out the cast recording!





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Musical Monday: Les Misérables

Les MisName: Les Misérables

Credits: Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel. Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.

Summary: Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables is set in 19th century France and centers on the life of French peasant Jean Valjean. Recently released from prison, Valjean (Convict 24601) breaks parole to create a new life for himself but has to evade the grip of the relentless Inspector Javert. The story reaches its climax against the background of the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris (not the French Revolution, as some have mistakenly believed!).

West End:
The musical opened at London’s West End in 1985, after an initial run at the Palais du Sports in Paris in 1980 and is still running (30 years later!). 
Opened in 1987 and ran until 2003. The first U.S. tour began in late 1987, followed by two more tours in 1988. Since then, there have been numerous international productions, as well as live concerts and broadcasts.
Broadway Revivals:
There have been two revivals—one in 2006, and one in 2014. 
Released in 2012, the movie starred Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.

Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 1987. Won 2, including Best Musical and Best Score.
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Won 3, including Best Supporting Actress.

Rating: PG-13

Why This Musical: When Les Misérables originally opened on London’s West End, the critical reviews were dismal, but the show was so popular that its three-month run was sold out. Since then, it has run continuously in London for over thirty years! (The show celebrated its 30-year anniversary in October). The Broadway show ran for a solid 6,680 performances, making it one of the longest-running shows on in Broadway history. According to the UK website, the musical has been seen by over 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages! Les Misérables is considered one of the “mega-musicals” of the 1980s—shows like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon—that became global phenomena, selling millions of tickets and playing for years. Critics have blamed these shows for creating a “blockbuster” mentality in musical theatre which makes it difficult for smaller productions to get funded. However, there’s a reason Les Misérables has been so popular in around the world, and it’s not just about marketing and big budget sets. The musical is a powerful show with great songs and a cast of memorable characters, like Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and the Thernadiers. The story forges strong emotional connections on numerous levels, and it puts the audience through the ringer in terms of character deaths.

 My Connection: I saw first saw this musical in 1988 when it came to Los Angeles as part of the national tour. I went with a group of friends from graduate school, and I distinctly remember asking a few of them to switch seats, so I could sit next to Mike—a guy I had a crush on at the time (and who I ended up marrying, six years later). Shortly after that, Mike and I started dating, but I had to work at a field school camp that summer. As a going-away present, he gave me a cassette tape with the Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables, and I listened to it every night at camp. Even now, over 25 years later, I still haven’t gotten tired of songs like “One Day More,” and “On My Own.” Mike and I went to see it again in 2005 as part of “Broadway in Milwaukee,” and then in 2011, when our local high school did a fantastic production.

As far as the movie version goes….I know there are people who loved it, but I had issues. Visually, it was stunning, and I enjoyed the scenes with the revolutionaries (probably because one of them was played by Aaron Tveit), but some of the main characters left me cold. After listening to the Broadway recording for years, I couldn’t embrace Hugh Jackman’s singing voice as Valjean. And don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe as Javert. The high school actor who played him in the local production I saw did a much better job.

Where to See It: Les Misérables is often performed by community groups and high schools, so it’s not hard to find a live version somewhere. The 25th Anniversary Concert is available on DVD, as is the 2012 movie.

Favorite Songs: 
“Do You Hear the People Sing?”
“On My Own”
“One Day More”

Final Thoughts: This is an incredible show, but the movie doesn’t do it justice. Watch it live if you can, or catch one of the recorded performances.




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Musical Monday: West Side Story

West Side Story playbillName: West Side Story

Credits: Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents.

Summary: Inspired by Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet,” West Side Story is a musical set in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City in the 1950s, centered around the rivalry between two teenage street gangs–the Sharks and the Jets.

Broadway Premiere: Opened in 1957 and ran for 700+ performances before going on tour. The musical has spawned several national tours, performances by various opera companies, and dozens of international productions.
Broadway Revivals: There have been two Broadway revivals of West Side Story, in 1980 and 2009. The 2009 revival was notable for the inclusion of Spanish lyrics and dialogue in the libretto, with translation provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton).
Movie: Released in 1961, starring Natalie Wood, Richard Breymer, and Rita Moreno.

Broadway: Nominated for 6 Tony Awards in 1958. Won 2, including Best Choreography, which went to Jerome Robbins. It lost Best Musical to The Music Man, which was hugely popular at the time.
Movie: Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 10, including Best Picture.

Rating: PG

Why This Musical: The score is marvelous, with heart-tugging love songs (“Somewhere,” “Tonight”) and rousing group numbers (“America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke”). The choreography is stunning and the iconic opening number has been copied–and parodied–in theatre and pop culture. It’s hard not to get swept up in a tale of two star-crossed lovers, whether it’s set in 16th century Verona or 1950s New York. In terms of the musical’s importance in theatre history, West Side Story marks Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a lyricist. The director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, also broke with tradition in that he did not hire two separate choruses for the musical (one to sing and one to dance). Instead all the actors–the gang members and their girlfriends–had to sing, dance, and act. Viewed through today’s eyes, the musical may seem dated, but at the time, it was considered innovative. Critics called the show’s choreography, music, and theatrical style bold and exciting. In their opinion, the musical successfully channeled the growing undercurrent of rebellion that was also seen in 1950s films like Rebel Without a Cause.


My Connection: Like many people, my first memory of this musical is the movie version, which was periodically shown on TV. Over the years, I watched it whenever it happened to be on, and eventually I bought the DVD version. I remember viewing it with my daughter when she had to do a paper on “Romeo & Juliet” for a middle-school English class. Although I love the songs, the dancing, and the great cinematography, the movie has a few issues. Much of the acting seems stilted by today’s standards, the gang members are laughably clean-cut (not a tattoo in sight!), and the casting of Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican character is questionable. In 2010, I was lucky enough to see the Broadway revival–the one which wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the story. It was a powerful show, with a great cast, and I couldn’t help crying during the final scene, even though I knew how it would end.

Where to See It: For years, West Side Story has been a popular musical for high schools to produce, because it features teenaged characters and it’s so well known. If there isn’t a local production available, the movie can be found on DVD; a 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition was also released in 2011 with a bunch of extras, including a discussion with Stephen Sondheim, in which he discusses the musical’s lyrics.

Favorite Songs: “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere”

Final Thoughts: Even if the movie seems dated, it’s worth seeing for the songs and the choreography. And it’s usually not hard to find a local performance, although (spoiler alert), you’ll need to bring tissues for the final scene.

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Musical Monday: Wicked

Wicked playbillName: Wicked

Credits: Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman.

Summary: Based on “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” a best-selling-book by Gregory Maguire (1995), the musical tells the “untold story” of the witches of Oz: Glinda the Good, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Broadway Premiere: Opened in 2003 and still running (!); the original cast included Idina Menzel as Elphaba, Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, and Joel Grey as the Wizard.
National Tours: To date, there have been two national tours: one in 2005, and another one that started in 2009 and is still on-going.
International: In addition to the national tours, Wicked has spawned international versions in Japan, Australia, Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Scotland, and London’s West End.

Broadway: Nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2004. Won 3, including Best Lead Actress in a Musical for Idina Menzel. Wicked was predicted to win the Tony for Best Musical, but it lost to Avenue Q in a surprising upset.

Rating: G/PG

Why This Musical: When Wicked opened on Broadway, the reviews were mixed. Critics praised the production, but dismissed the songs and the simplistic plot (the book was much darker and more thematically complex). However, the commercial response was incredibly positive, leading to record-breaking success at the theatre box office. Wicked has been one of the most lucrative productions on Broadway, and it’s currently the 11th-longest running Broadway show in history. The musical’s success can be attributed not only to the fantastic visuals (sets, costumes, lighting, and special effects) but also to the two main characters—Glinda and Elphaba—who stand out above everyone else, with show-stopping numbers that showcase their vocal talents. The themes of the story—friendship, girl power, and staying true to oneself—also resonate with viewers. Even though Elphaba has a love interest, her most important relationship in the story is with her frenemy/ally Glinda. The show has been hugely popular with women, including repeat fans who have spent hundreds of dollars seeing it over and over again!

My Connection: I am a huge Wizard of Oz fan from way back—I’ve probably seen the original 1939 movie a dozen times, and I have some of the original Land of Oz books, which I inherited from my Grandmother. When Maguire’s book was first published, I rushed to read it, but I had mixed feelings. The author did a great job with the Wicked Witch’s backstory, but a lot of the book was too dark and ambiguous for my taste. The first time I heard the cast recording of the musical was in 2005, and it stuck with me. When the show came to Chicago in 2007, I went with my daughter, who was 10 at the time, and we both loved it. Although I’d taken her to a lot of high school and community theatre musicals before that, Wicked was the first large-scale production she’d ever seen. Wicked is one of those shows that I consider a “gateway musical”—an accessible production filled with catchy songs, strong themes, and great visuals—that can spark a lifelong passion for musical theatre.

Where to See It: Right now, the only way to see Wicked is in the theatre. If you’re in New York City, the show is still playing on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre, and discounted tickets are often available. The touring version also comes to bigger cities on a regular basis; the most recent tour is scheduled to appear in Milwaukee on Nov. – 14. Because of the show’s continued popularity on Broadway, the stock and amateur licensing rights have never been made available, which means you can’t see it in your local high school or community theatre. Over the years, rumors have floated around the Internet about a possible movie version, but nothing has been confirmed. The cast recording from the show is available on iTunes.

Favorite Songs: 
“Dancing Through Life”
“Defying Gravity”
“As Long as You’re Mine”
“For Good”

Final Thoughts: If the touring version comes to your town, Wicked is worth seeing. The sets, costumes, and special effects are marvelous, and it makes for a great mother-daughter theatre experience.




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Musical Monday: Sweeney Todd

SweeneyTodd-LibrettoName: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Credits: Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Summary: The musical takes place in 19th Century England and tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber unjustly imprisoned for years by a corrupt judge. As “Sweeney Todd,” Barker re-establishes himself as a barber, then slakes his thirst for revenge by murdering his customers and disposing of the bodies with the help of Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies.

Broadway Premiere: Opened in 1979; ran until 1980. A national tour followed. In 1980, one of the performances from the tour was recorded for a PBS broadcast (in 1982).
Broadway Revivals: 1989 and 2005.
Movie: Released in 2007, directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.

Broadway: Nominated for 9 Tony Awards. Won 8, including Best Musical.
Revival (1989): Nominated for 4 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. 0 wins.
Revival (2005): Nominated for 6 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. 2 wins.
Movie: Nominated for 3 Academy Awards. Won 1, for Art Direction

Rating: R (movie rating – for gory violence)

Why This Musical: It would be easy to read the summary and dismiss this musical as creepy and over-the-top (a barber who slits people’s throats and has his accomplice bake the bodies into meat pies!), but it’s a show with heart and depth. First of all, the music and lyrics are written by Stephen Sondheim, a man who’s revered in musical theatre circles for his complex scores and creative phrasing. Sweeney Todd is by turns funny, achingly sad, gruesome, and frightening, all centered on the themes of revenge and obsession. It has been revived and performed all over the world, in theatres, opera houses, and concert halls. Different performances have interpreted the show in all sorts of ways, including a rock version and a play-within-a-play where it’s performed by the inhabitants of an insane asylum. It’s a musical that demands a lot of its performers, in that it’s almost entirely sung-through, and the lyrics are tricky (seriously—listen to “A Little Priest”!). Even though there’s no way to justify how horribly the two main characters behave, I found myself rooting for them throughout the show.

My Connection: Back in 1993, when I was working on an archaeological dig in Turkey, the project director invited some of us over to his rental house one evening. He told us he had a recording of an operetta that we simply HAD to watch! This turned out to be the 1982 PBS recording of Sweeney Todd. Suffice to say, we were all a little creeped out that our director was obsessed with this musical (he’d stop the tape at regular intervals to point out his favorite parts!). However, the songs stuck with me, and I’ve listening to the soundtrack for years. In 2010, I grabbed the chance to see a live version, performed by the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago. I’ve also seen the movie a few times—the blood is a bit much for me, but the casting is great. Plus, Alan Rickman (Snape!) plays the despicable Judge Turpin.

Where to See It: If you’d prefer to watch the theatrical version, the 1982 PBS broadcast is available on DVD from Amazon. For the movie version, Target and Wal-Mart are offering it as part of a Johnny Depp 2-for-1 DVD bundle with Sleepy Hollow. The soundtracks for the original Broadway show, the 2005 revival, and the movie are all available on iTunes. It’s also a show that’s performed regularly by local theatre groups.

Favorite Songs:
“The Worst Pies in London”
“A Little Priest”

Final Thoughts: Gorgeous soundtrack! Definitely worth a listen, and it’s a great intro to Sondheim because it’s one of his better-known musicals (in addition to Into the Woods). The movie version is also decent—and it’s a great late-night watch for the Halloween season!



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Musical Monday: Evita

evita playbillName: Evita

 Credits: Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Tim Rice.

 Summary: The musical focuses on the life of Eva “Evita” Duarte de Peron, an Argentinian actress who rose from poverty to become the wife of Argentinian president Juan Peron and a powerful political figure in her own right.

Premiere: London’s West End in 1978.
Broadway: Opened in 1979; ran until 1983.
Broadway Revival: Ran from 2012 – 2013 (followed by a national tour).
Movie: Released in 1996, starring Madonna as Eva Peron and Antonio Banderas as Che.

Broadway: Nominated for 11 Tony Awards. Won 7, including Best Musical and Best Direction.
Revival: Nominated for 3 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical. 0 wins.
Movie: Won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “You Must Love Me.”

Rating: PG (movie rating)

Why This Musical:  After Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (ALW/TR) wrote the music and lyrics for two biblical-themed musicals (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ, Superstar), they tackled the life of Eva Peron, a controversial political figure. It’s an ambitious musical—23 songs, very little dialogue, and a main character who often comes across as cold and manipulative. But whenever I listen to this musical, I’m drawn into the story, thanks to the catchy, clever lyrics. Having Che, rather than Eva, serve as the narrator is a smart move, as he’s the most likeable character in the show. The story moves at a quick pace, as we trace Eva’s rise and fall, through poverty, her early radio/acting career, her marriage, her political ambitions, and ultimately, her death.

My Connection: My first exposure to this musical goes way back to 1982, when my friend, Karen, returned from a summer band trip to Europe. She knew I was a big fan of ALW/TR (my teenaged obsession with Jesus Christ Superstar will be covered in a later blog post), so she couldn’t wait to tell me that she’d seen the duo’s latest musical, Evita, at the West End Theatre in London. We listed to her record for hours, and eventually I bought my own copy. For years, Evita was on my regular rotation of musicals, and I had most of the songs memorized. When the movie came out, I saw it in the theatre, but my husband was more enamored of it than me, probably because I wasn’t that excited about Madonna as Eva Peron. However, Antonio Banderas is smoldering and swoon-worthy as Che. A couple of years ago, the national tour of the revival came to Milwaukee, so I was lucky enough to see it live. Totally worth it, and much better than the movie!

Where to See It: The movie is easy to find on DVD (Target has the original for $5; a 15th Anniversary Blu-Ray is available at Target and Wal-Mart for $13), and you could probably find it at the library. The musical is often performed by local theatre groups. If you’d rather just listen to the soundtrack, both the original London recording and the Broadway revival are available on iTunes.

Favorite Songs:* “Good Night and Thank You”, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, “High Flying, Adored”, “A Waltz for Eva and Che”  (*I didn’t include “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” which is the iconic song from this musical, because I’ve heard it too many times.)


  • Among the actresses considered for the part of Eva Peron in the movie version were Liza Minnelli, Charo, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Barbra Streisand.
  • Cover versions of the song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” were released by Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter in the 1970s
  • Patti LuPone, who starred in the original Broadway production of Evita, has stated that it was one of the “worst experiences of her life” because of the lack of support she got!

Final Thoughts: Definitely worth a listen, or if you’re in the mood for Madonna, check out the movie version.

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Musical Monday: Chicago

If you’ve read my previous posts about musicals (here and here), you’ll know I’m a huge fan of musical theatre. When I last checked, I had over 560 songs from various soundtracks/cast recordings on my iPod, which is more than 24 hours of music! Since I love sharing this passion, I’ve decided to do a weekly blog post (Musical Monday), spotlighting some of my favorites.

Chicago PlaybillName: Chicago

Credits: Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Ebb and Bob Fosse.

Summary: Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, the musical satirizes the concept of the “celebrity criminal,” by focusing on two murderesses—Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly—who rival for media coverage as their murder trials approach.

 Dates: The original Broadway production opened in 1975, and ran for 936 performances. However, the revival, which opened in 1996, fared much better, because it’s still running on Broadway! To date, it’s the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. A movie version was released in 2002, with a star-studded cast that included Rene Zellweger, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, and John C. Reilly, and Queen Latifah.

Rating: PG-13 (based on the rating given to the movie)

Awards: The 1996 revival won six Tony Awards, including Outstanding Revival of a Musical. The 2002 film won Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (for Catherine Zeta-Jones)

Why This Musical:  First of all, let’s talk about longevity—the 1996 revival has been running for almost twenty years! Plus—what’s not to love about Fosse’s killer choreography (jazz hands!) and those catchy songs. It’s a true classic, and the themes of scandal, corruption, and celebrity culture are as timely today as they were in the 1920s. What’s equally amazing about the long-running Broadway revival is that it doesn’t rely on fancy sets or costumes. The set is stripped down, keeping the focus on the actors and the spectacular dance numbers. Because the Broadway show has been around so long, there has been a lot of celebrity casting over the years, with roles played by Patrick Swayze, Usher, Lisa Rinna, Melanie Griffith, Taye Diggs, Marilu Henner, Christie Brinkley, and Brooke Sheilds.

 My Connection: My first exposure to the musical was through the 2002 movie (which I suspect is the case for a lot of people). I loved so much about it—the cool staging, the 1920s costumes, the songs, Richard Gere as Billy Flynn (swoon)—that I bought the soundtrack and the DVD. However, I didn’t get a chance to see a live version of the show until 2009—in Chennai, India, of all places. Although the community theatre group that performed it censored some of the content, it was still a decent adaptation. In 2011, I was lucky enough to see the Broadway version and was blown away by the talented cast.

Where to See It: The movie is available on DVD (both Amazon and Wal-Mart carry it), and you could probably also find it at the library. If you happen to be in NYC, the revival is still playing on Broadway, and it’s not hard to get discounted tickets. Since the revival opened, there have been ten National Tours, with another one coming up in 2016. It’s also a show that’s often performed by local theatre groups.

Favorite Songs: “Cell Block Tango”, “We Both Reached for the Gun”, “Razzle Dazzle”, “Mr. Cellophane”

Final Thoughts: Definitely worth your time, even if you only watch the movie version!

Thanks for stopping by! If you have a musical you’d like to spotlight, let me know, and you can be a guest poster.




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Five Days in Muncie: #MWW15

mwwFor the past five days, I was at a writing conference in Muncie, Indiana, called the Midwest Writers Workshop (known on Twitter as #MWW15). This is my third year attending, and, as always, it was an amazing, emotional, exhausting experience. I came home groggy and craving caffeine, but fired up to tackle my revisions.

For me, some of this year’s MWW highlights included:

  • Taking a fabulous intensive class on incorporating real life events into YA fiction, led by the brilliant and hilarious Christa Desir, in which I learned that even the stupidest, what-was-I-thinking moments of my youth could be used to create great stories.
  • Attending a group viewing of “Sharknado 3,” hosted by Summer Heacock (aka @Fizzygrrl), who frequently coordinates Friday night Twitter parties in which we watch and live-tweet good/bad movies (this spring, we did ALL the Twilight films). Trust me when I say there’s nothing like watching an epically bad movie with a bunch of snarky writers.
  • Listening to agents and editors talk passionately about books their clients have written or books they love (including an intense discussion/debate about the Harry Potter series) and realizing that they’re the biggest book nerds ever (which is pretty awesome).
  • Celebrating friends’ accomplishments: debut novels, upcoming releases, offers of representation, full requests, kick-ass story ideas, and successful pitches at MWW.
  • Listening to my friend, Mark Benson (@WaysideWriter) give a talk on pitches, in which he told the audience that it took him 385 queries, and multiple manuscripts, to land an agent, and realizing, once again, that perseverance is key when it comes to writing success.
  • Being inspired by the final keynote address, given by the Query Shark (@Janet_Reid), whose blog I’ve been following for years. The theme of her talk: “Yeah, I can do that,” reminded me that you have to keep going, no matter how tough the industry is. The only way to succeed is to say “yes” – to revisions, rewrites, new story ideas, and new challenges, no matter how daunting they seem.

If you’ve ever considered coming to a writing conference in the Midwest, I encourage you to consider MWW. For its size, (this year’s capacity was ~ 250 people) it has an amazing sense of community. For three nights of the conference, numerous attendees (first-timers, fledgling writers, published authors, agents, and editors) congregated on a outdoor patio at a sports bar near the hotel and mingled freely. At any given time during the day, people sat in the atrium of the conference center (the BSU Alumni Center) and hung out–talking, brainstorming, offering pitch advice, drinking coffee, and bonding.

Coming to Muncie, Indiana in the middle of the summer may not seem like a vacation, but for me, it was like the best writers’ summer camp ever.

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Return to India, Part 2: Mumbai

To continue with the India narrative (the first post is here, in case you missed it)—after visiting Chennai, we flew to Mumbai for a four-day visit. When I originally planned our India trip—back in the spring—I thought it might be fun to visit somewhere we’d never seen before. Mumbai—a big, bustling city on the Arabian Sea—seemed like a good choice, because we’d have lots of things to do.


Mumbai – the Gateway of India and Taj Hotel, in the Colaba district.


Only after I’d made our plans did I learn we’d be traveling there in the middle of monsoon season. At this point, there was nothing we could do but bring sturdy shoes and umbrellas, and hope the rains weren’t too torrential.

Our hotel in Mumbai, The Residency (Fort), wasn’t as luxurious as the places we’d stayed at in Chennai and Mahabalipuram, but it was perfect, location-wise, being right in the heart of South Mumbai. Not only could we walk to many of the sights, but the streets outside our hotel were Vendor Central. Every day, vendors set out their wares: shoes, socks, underwear, shirts, jewelry, backpacks, watches, sunglasses, hats, umbrellas (perfect for the monsoon!), and cheap electronics. My son was very excited to find a severely discounted (and probably off-brand) set of Beats headphones for $3, as well as a Messi soccer jersey and a Dhoni cricket jersey.

On our first full day in the city, the sky looked ominous, portending heavy rains, but we decided to forge on ahead with our plans and took a ferry from Mumbai Harbor to Elephanta Island.


En route to Elephanta Island, with the Gateway of India in the background (before the rain).


Of course, this would be the one day during our trip when it actually rained, and, about halfway through the seventy-minute ferry ride, the skies opened up. We were on the top deck and got soaked, despite our umbrellas. By the time we landed on the island, the rain had stopped, but the resulting heat and humidity were like a steam bath! The path to the caves was long (all uphill) and at the top, we were met by a troupe of monkeys. The leader of the group displayed a remarkable knack for opening half-filled water bottles!


The monkeys, lying in wait for an unsuspecting group of tourists.


The rock-cut caves were well worth the long climb, as they had huge carved sculptures from the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., depicting Hindu deities. Usually we prefer to wander on our own at tourist sites, but we decided to pay for a guide. A good decision, seeing as how the guide knew a great deal about the caves, and described every figure in detail. It was a far better cry than us wandering around, squinting at the statues, and saying, “That looks like Ganesh,” or “That might be Parvati, but I’m not sure.”


Outside view of one of the Elephanta Island caves.


As luck would have it, the rest of our Mumbai visit was rain-free, although with the intense humidity, it was hard to be out in the sun for longer than an hour or two. Still, we managed to fill our days with lots of sightseeing: a visit to the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the Mani Bhavan (Gandhi’s home and museum), the Chhatrapatī Shivaji Mahārāj Vastu Saṅgrahālay Museum (with an excellent exhibit on miniature painting – a personal favorite of mine), Leopold’s Cafe, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST – an historical railway station with gorgeous architecture), and Malabar Hill (with an awesome view of the city).


View of Mumbai skyline from Malabar Hill


One night, we took long walk along Marine Drive, overlooking the Arabian Sea, as the skyline darkened and the lights of the city emerged.  We also squeezed in a Bollywood movie (at the famous Regal Theatre), where we saw ABCD2 (Anybody Can Dance 2). Despite the fact that the dialogue was in Hindi (no subtitles), we followed along pretty well. Luckily, montages, song & dance numbers, and “dark night of the soul” moments are pretty much universal, whatever the language!

In the end, Mumbia was definitely worth the visit. It gave off a different vibe from Chennai, but it was fun to try a new place.

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Return to India, Part 1: Chennai

For the last six months, I’ve been working on a new book—a young adult contemporary novel set in Chennai, India. The story was inspired by my family’s experiences there in 2009, when my husband participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange. As part of the exchange, we lived in an apartment in Chennai for five months, and my kids attended a local school.

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Our family in India, in 2009


For years, we’ve said we wanted to go back, and this summer we decided to go for it, before my daughter left for college in August. We flew from Chicago to Frankfurt to Chennai, for a total of nineteen hours in the air, which was as grueling as I remembered. Even though we arrived in Chennai around 1 a.m., the temperature was a sweltering 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside. After a fractured night’s sleep, we set out to explore Chennai. Our hotel was close enough to our old neighborhood that we could walk there.


Our old neighborhood, with flame-of-the-forest trees and waiting auto-rickshaw.


It was weirdly nostalgic to see the narrow lanes where the kids once played street cricket and badminton with the neighbor kids. When we found our old apartment on Karpagam 3rd Street, the building’s caretaker, Saraswati, gave us an curious look, until she realized who we were. Given our family’s very limited knowledge of Tamil, we couldn’t explain our return after six years away, but Saraswati was able to convey her amazement at how much the kids had grown.

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Karpagam 3rd Street, Chennai, in 2009



And in 2015


Even the owner of the nearby corner store remembered us, probably because we’d stopped by almost every day after school to buy ice cream or chips. We also saw places we’d frequented in the past, like The French Loaf (cafe/bakery with great chocolate cake) and the oddly named “36 Degrees U Go Minus”— where we’d ordered numerous banana milkshakes and plates of fries.


Our corner store in MRC Nagar, Chennai


When we lived in Chennai before, we took auto-rickshaws everywhere, but I’d forgotten how death-defying the rides can be. No seat belts, crazy traffic, and horns honking constantly. We took auto-rickshaws to some of our old hang-outs, including Citi Center Mall, where all four of us went to Terminator: Genisys 3D on opening weekend for a total cost of $10(!). We also revisited Vidya Mandir–the K-12 school where Mike had taught math, and the kids had attended school (at the time, they were in 3rd grade and 7th grade). My daughter’s class had already graduated, but my son got to see his former classmates, who crowded around him like he was a celebrity. In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner with the Vidya Mandir teachers, who overwhelmed us with their generosity.


Dinner with the Vidya Mandir teachers


Going back to Chennai as tourists, rather than temporary residents, gave us a chance to indulge a little. Rather than staying in an apartment with minimal air conditioning, dodgy bathrooms, and occasional cockroaches, we spent four days in a comfortable hotel with intense a.c., a full kitchen, and a rooftop infinity pool. We took a trip to Mahabalipuram, where we splurged at a resort with an incredible winding pool and tropical grounds (necessary for my research, as my book includes a pivotal scene set in this resort!).


View from our balcony at the Radisson Blu resort in Mahabalipuram, India


After just four days in Chennai, I realized the descriptions in my WIP were woefully inadequate. As a result, I took a lot of photos and jotted down numerous notes, with the hope that I could capture more of the city’s vitality in my novel. I’m not sure if that’s possible, but this trip made me very glad that I decided to set my current book in India.


Street scene in Mylapore, Chennai


Ice cream vendors along Marina Beach, Chennai



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