An original musical based on the Mark Twain story will premiere in Westport

WESTPORT — How do money and power affect the way people interact with those who have it?

It’s a question Mark Twain explores in his short story, ‘The Million Pound Bank Note’ and Westport Library will examine in song with the performance of ‘My Millionaire’, an original production based on Twain’s work. The premier will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday and will be followed by a conversation.

“It took a long time to evolve,” said Barbara Backlar Reis, the show’s composer and Westport resident. “But these are musicals.”

Nancy Becklean Tobin wrote the lyrics and Reis wrote the music. The duo began working on the show in the 1980s, even performing the songs at the New York Public Theater once.

It then sat on the shelf after that performance in the 1980s until the pandemic hit. The two were housebound and decided to take it back and have been working there for two years.

Tobin had started it even earlier. She got the idea from Lehman Engel, a famous composer, in one of her musical theater workshops BMI Lehman Engel. She had started working on it with someone else, but when that didn’t work out, she turned to Reis to create the music. The two had previously written a number of shows together, Reis said.

“Barbara has a beautiful ability to create such beautiful, sentimental melodies,” said show director and Easton resident J. Clayton Winters. “I think the performance is a love song for Twain’s story.”

The show’s latest review came a few months ago when Winters heard some of the music and met Reis. The library was looking for a 45-minute program and so they reworked the 21/2 hour musical into the window, which Winters says brought it closer to the source material.

He estimates that around 85% of the show is new, although all 10 songs are the same. The original show has around 20 songs.

“It’s truly a collaboration that spans decades, but has been shaped over the past two months for the Westport Public Library,” Winters said.

Twain’s original story was published in 1893 between the periods he lived in Connecticut – first in Hartford, then in Redding, where he went on to found the library, which still bears his name.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s kind of a musical meta-theatre,” Winters said, of the performance of the Connecticut author’s works at a Connecticut library.

He and Reis said the story is still one that resonates today and people should see. They said it’s a love story about how people can find value in each other, even in the presence of wealth and power.

“The appearance of wealth can be a subterfuge to find out who someone really is,” Reis said. “My daughter has always called this work ‘the currency of love’.”

Winters said Twain explored these themes so well.

“In comic Twain fashion, he plays with the appearance of wealth and how you can trade it,” he said.

Winters said the Westport Library is a great place on its own with its lights, cameras, stage, LED screen and grand piano that helped them share the production they wanted.

“It’s just a remarkable place,” Winters said.

The music will be performed by a six-person cast and Chris Coogan on piano. Coogan is also musical director.

With Coogan performing, this will be Reis’ first time as an audience member at one of her own shows, something she is looking forward to.

“I believe this musical gift was a gift from God that I received as a young child and that gift from God will be shared with the public,” Reis said.

Both Winters and Reis are grateful to the library for the opportunity to show this performance.

Reis had taken an exercise class at the senior center over the summer and talked about what she was working on with Dick Lowenstein, whose friend Andrew Wilk not only sits on the library board, but is also the executive producer of “Live at Lincoln Center”. “He then hooked her up with others and between multiple conversations and sharing the recording of the Public Theater performance, this upcoming show became a reality.

“I’m so grateful,” Reis said. “It has been the work, heart and soul of so many people to make this production possible.”