A Chat with the Creative Genius Behind Philly
Eden Prairie’s John Cal has had a lifelong burning passion for music. Even as a young kid, he began writing songs and playing in bands, nurturing his love of music and feeding his soul.
A few years ago, he was at a crossroad in his professional life. A corporate reorganization provided Cal with an opportunity to once again dream and pursue his lifelong passion. Based on a true story and centered around a family butcher store set in Yonkers, New York, Cal wrote the musical Philly. John Cal’s family owned a neighborhood butcher shop in Yonkers for about 50 years. Typical of the era, almost all of the family members worked in the store. After high school, John went away to attend college. After graduating college, he took a job working in corporate America but didn’t care for it, so he returned home and started working in the family store again. But, his passion wasn’t to be denied: He wanted to write songs.
A Dream is Born
One night, Cal was at a health club and overheard a woman singing in the ladies’ locker room. He was so struck by her voice that he loitered by the locker room door, asking each woman who came out if she was the one who had been singing. He waited there until the owner of the mysterious voice finally emerged. After meeting Phyllis, he invited her to sing at a demo session because he loved her voice.
A short time later, Cal had a vision or a dream—he’s not sure which—but he visualized a band with a certain type of sound, and he could see Phyllis as the lead singer. He wanted to call the band Philly and asked Phyllis to change her name, she did, and so the story begins.
Thirty years later, John Cal was encouraged to write a Broadway musical and he based it on his story and the band he produced back in 1979. Set among the backdrop of his family’s butcher store, featuring larger than life characters, Philly is a heartwarming tale about a band that dared to dream. Cal describes the music of Philly as “classic rock meets Walt Disney.”
Bringing the Show to the Stage
The show was completed in 2012. Cal determined that he wanted to find a stage to workshop the musical to see how it would play out on the stage. This would enable Cal and his production team to “mature” the musical and make any necessary changes to improve the impact of the story. Philly is a large cast musical with 24 original musical numbers! It was definitely written with the goal of becoming a Broadway musical. John Cal quickly learned that there was a dearth of theatres in the Twin Cities that had the capacity to handle a new original musical production that was that large, so he needed to be creative in finding a theatre.
He began networking within the theatre community in Minnesota. During his networking, Cal eventually learned of the Sabes Theatre which is located within the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. He says, “It’s a beautiful 300 seat theatre. I approached the artistic director and offered to fix their lights and sound system and help get the theatre back in peak condition in the hope that it would reinvigorate the theatre.” They worked out a mutually beneficial agreement and word of the musical sparked a lot of interest within the theatre community. Several people stepped forward to participate in bringing the production to the stage. As a result of this influx of talent, the workshop concept turned into a full-blown production. Cal says, “We rehearsed the show for about six weeks. The opening weekend was at 70 percent capacity, and we were sold out a few days later. In fact, the first run of Philly was nominated for and won the BroadwayWorld Minneapolis Best Original/New Work award in 2014.”
Broadway, Here We Come!
“Soon, people from Disney heard about it and reached out to us. We had a major rewrite and did a second show about a year later at the same place and had 11 shows. The average time to get a show up on the stage on Broadway can take from eight to nine years because it is continually in the process of getting ‘matured.’ Today there is also a three year wait to get into a theatre on Broadway, because there are only 41 theatres.” He adds, “I believe the show will one day get to Broadway.”
After the second show, they felt they were ready to take the show to New York and start shopping it. They received critiques of the musical from professionals which helped them evolve the show. Soon they began networking within the theatre community in New York and connected with key players to facilitate a “29-Hour Reading” which is a special contract that allowed them to hire professional Broadway actors at a reasonable rate, for 29 hours. During that timeframe, they worked on both the songs and the book (theatre lingo for the script). Attendance to their 29-Hour Reading was by invitation only and it was previewed on October 13, 2017. Cal says the theater professionals and investors who saw the preview loved the music and the story—and the feedback they received was overwhelmingly positive. Since then Cal and his team have been incorporating the suggestions for change from the experts on Broadway.
A Dream Realized
Cal enthuses, “Philly is a family show. It’s about pursuing your dream and believing in it so strongly that you pull other people into your dream. Then, when you’re almost there, something happens—and you have to make a choice between your dream and real love—and of course, you choose real love because there is nothing more important in life than real love, family and friends.”
Of creating the musical and working on the ongoing “book” changes, Cal says, “I’ve never worked so hard, learned so much or had so much fun since I was 25 years old. It’s just rejuvenated my life. When you get a second chance to do what you love, it’s a wonderful thing!”
The musical has definitely built up momentum over the past few years and as it has gone through a maturation process—much like a fine wine improves over time—Philly is chugging on ever so steadily toward its ultimate destination and opening on Broadway. To John Cal and his team, we say, ‘Break a leg!’