About ten years ago, a couple of arts administration majors graduated from Wagner College, ready to take on the theatrical world. It took a full decade, and the help of next-generation Waggies, to bring their ambition to fruition. The spark that provided the inspiration for all of this? A surprising, off-beat love story, posted in a blog.
Chris Sabol ’12 and Billy Aberle ’13 became fast friends on Grymes Hill. Chris’s high school experience on the Jersey shore had been all about band. Billy’s experience on Long Island was similar, but with ample helpings of high school choir and theater thrown in. Together, they were a great mix.
As Wagner undergrads, these Theta Chi brothers became co-founders of Student Run Musical Theatre, an organization that still thrives today, producing several small shows with student directors, performers and crews each year. When they graduated, it made sense for Billy and Chris to form a nonprofit company to produce new works for the theater.
“We knew we wanted to write something in musical form,” Billy said.
The question was, what?
To get some initial direction, they wrote to a couple of guys who were just finding their stride in the theatrical world, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. That team was working on a new musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” — “but this was before they blew up,” Billy quickly added, “and they wrote back with some amazing writing advice.
“One of the things they said was, for your first show, try to find something that is a story that already exists.”
So Billy and Chris started digging, looking on the internet for some great story about which to write.
Finally, in September 2014, Billy found something. Some guy in Boston had written a blog about how love had found him in the most unexpected way imaginable, at least to him: with his roommate. Another guy. Another straight guy.
Despite their initial insecurities, the two men finally surrendered to the truth: Love is love, no matter the gender.
The story went viral.
Chris heard Billy out. He wasn’t immediately sold — but he agreed to at least consider it.
“When Billy brought this idea up, I remember saying to him, ‘Okay, I’ll make a deal with you,’ ” Chris said. “ ‘If you reach out to these guys and say, ‘Hi, I’m some random guy and I want to write a musical about your life,’ and they say yes, then we’ll do this.”
“The next day, I reached out to them,” Billy said. “They got back to us right away, and they agreed to do the interview. We drove up to Boston, where they lived, and we sat down with them over two days — and that is when it became clear that there was a real story here.”
The two guys in Boston, Mike Iamele and Garrett Lech, remember that weekend well.
“If I’m being honest,” Mike said to Billy and Chris during our interview, “when you two first reached out, I didn’t expect this to go anywhere. “
‘They’re just out of college,’ I thought, ‘they’re kids. They seem eager and earnest and really nice, so we’ll entertain this, but at most we’re just having a conversation with people — and that’s totally fine.’ ”
Mike, a blog writer and life coach, and Garrett, a clinical pharmacist, had already been exposed to strangers’ reactions to their very personal story. The morning after it was published — on Sept. 14, 2014 — Mike remembers checking the hit count on the blog: over 100,000 people.
“It really took me by surprise,” Mike said, “to wake up to phone calls from NPR and Huffington Post wanting to have these conversations. There were so many great messages saying, ‘This resonates. I’ve had a similar experience that I’ve never talked about before to anyone.’ But there was also a lot of hate, a lot of negative response. It was a really interesting moment for me.”
“We therapized each other, I guess, for a very long time,” Garrett said. “Every night we had these really deep, profound conversations for a good year and a half.”
By the time Billy and Chris came to visit, Mike and Garrett were definitely ready for them.
But it took more time for Billy and Chris to figure out what they wanted to do with the story — seven years more.
“When we had first reached out to Mike and Garrett, we were fresh out of college,” Billy said, “and I don’t even know if we fully understood exactly what we were doing or even understood the story.
“I’m glad that it took as long as it did, because if we would have finished it four years ago, there’s no way that it would be like what it is right now.”
It took a visit with one of their old theater professors at Wagner to get Billy and Chris off the fence and into the saddle.
It was Aug. 6, 2021 — almost exactly a year ago as this Wagner Magazine story is being written — when Billy and Chris met up with Wagner College Theatre professor Felicia Ruff for dinner.
“They reached out to me for ideas about their next steps,” Felicia said. “I encouraged them to reconnect with Student Run Musical Theatre. They did, and things fell together from there.”
“We needed a fresh perspective on this thing that we’d been sitting with for six, seven years,” Chris said. “I remembered being at Wagner and immersed in our production, and how much passion the students have about creating theater here. It felt right.”
Billy and Chris contacted Seth Jolles ’22, who was president of SRMT that fall.
“He didn’t know who we were,” Chris remembers. “We basically said, ‘We started SRMT like a million years ago, and we have this original thing, and we were wondering if you guys wanted to work on it?’
“And he was like, ‘Sure!’
“That’s a testament to the connection between the students at this school and the people that have gone here,” Chris said.
That connection between Billy and Chris, on the one hand, and SRMT, on the other, helped the random ideas and separate songs that had been settling over the years finally gel into a real musical play, one that could be performed — and that’s what SRMT did with it, bringing its family of students and alumni together the day after Thanksgiving, while the campus community was on break, for a staged reading.
“Just watching the staged reading, I felt there could really be something,” said Sofia Shirey ’23, “and I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity.”
Sofie had been asked by SRMT president Seth Jolles to direct the show for performance this spring and, after a Zoom meeting with Seth, Billy and Chris, she agreed.
Sofie Shirey, a “theater kid” from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was majoring at Wagner in theater and psychology. After writing a one-act play for Wagner College Theatre’s “New Works” program, she had directed her first show last fall for Completely Student Productions, another student-theater group on Grymes Hill.
“It was one of the hardest three weeks of my life, from the auditions to opening night,” Sofie said, “but it made me realize that I want to be directing for the foreseeable future, which was eye-opening. Having done a lot of theater growing up and seeing people direct, I know what is good and what is bad, like how to treat actors and manage time.”
Good time management came in handy for the director of Billy and Chris’s musical, titled “Straight Forward” — especially since, with the crush of so many other demands on everyone’s time this spring, they were only able to organize seven rehearsals, and only on Sundays.
Further complicating matters was the fact that, no matter how much everyone wanted Covid to just go away and leave them alone, the pandemic just wouldn’t cooperate. Although the musical has a cast of just two actors, both of them caught Covid this spring. Andrew King ’22 (playing Garrett) got it pretty early and was able to recover long before performances were scheduled, but Greyson Riley ’23 (playing Mike) was still recuperating just 18 days before the first show.
Fortunately, both actors were ready to go by Monday, June 6, when the debut performance of “Straight Forward” was scheduled at Teatro Latea, a 75-seat black-box theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Billy and Chris had been able to move the show off campus, booking it into the New York Theater Festival’s spring/summer program for three performances that could reach savvy Gotham theatergoers.
The venue was packed, with all three shows performed to a full house. The final performance — on Sunday, June 12 — was attended by friends and family members of everyone involved: Sofie’s mother, Chris’s parents, Wagner faculty members, an old college pal of Mike and Garrett … and, of course, the men whose lives were the inspiration for “Straight Forward.”
“I had fond memories, fun memories reliving that point of our lives,” Garrett said. “Of course, it was scary, but I think because of the fact of where we’re at right now, I’m able to just be really grateful for the experience. At the end, what I really appreciated was that, even though I had to take a step back and say this is inspired by our story, I really love the message that it gives.”
“It was really interesting because, at the point in our life that the musical portrays, when we were living it, we didn’t know what the results were going to be,” Mike said, “and now we’re living the results, so there’s some validation in that, knowing that it all turned out OK and things led to a pretty good place.”
“As the lights were coming up when the show ended,” said Wagner theater professor Michele Pawk, “all I could feel was pride. I was honored to be there. The work was incredible.”
“And it’s not done after New York Theater Festival,” Billy added, “that’s not the end of it. We’re gonna be raising money to put it on again, somewhere bigger — and who knows where it can go? The limit is Broadway.”