FASHION ACADEMY, a one-hour pop/rock musical for family audiences, is now available for licensing from Tams-Witmark. The show, set at the fictional Fashion Academy of Brooklyn (FAB) Middle School, is a musical tale of finding one’s voice and not being afraid to use it. We caught up with the show’s creators, co-book writer Sheryl Berk and co-book writer/composer/lyricist Sabrina Chap, to discuss musical theatre, fashion, and middle school.
TAMS: Sheryl, you and your daughter Carrie first created FASHION ACADEMY as a book series, based on her idea. How did that come to be?
Sheryl Berk: We started writing our first book series together, The Cupcake Club: Peace Love and Cupcakes, when she was in second grade. And we were working on that, maybe on our third year. Carrie was in fifth grade; she was about ten years old, and she was mildly obsessed with Project Runway. One day, she came home and said, “Here you go, Mom,” and she handed me this giant sheet of easel paper. She had written out the arc of the first book of Fashion Academy, including the characters and their relationships, and what she wanted for Mickey/Kenzie! I looked at it and I thought, “This is very clever.” And I sent it to our publisher and they loved it.
And now, of course, you’ve published four books in the series. So how did that first FASHION ACADEMY book become a musical?
Sheryl: We had already done a musical based on Peace Love and Cupcakes with Vital Theatre Company, so I sent the artistic director, Stephen Sunderlin, a copy of the first Fashion Academy book. Steve said, “This is a great story. I love it!” There was no hesitation. He said, “I’d love to pair you up with a woman who’s a composer, a lyricist, a performer, and she loves fashion. She would absolutely flip out over this.”
So, Sabrina, did you flip out?
Sabrina Chap: (Laughs) Yeah, Fashion Academy just grabbed me immediately as being the perfect vehicle for a musical theatre story. It’s about someone finding their own voice and learning to express themselves. It had such a perfect narrative and such depth to it, and that’s something that’s really difficult to find in a children’s story. It really showed the struggle of a young person trying to find their place in the world.
How was your working relationship?
Sheryl: Oh, Sabrina and I got on the phone for about two hours and just chatted away! We really had this incredible, unified vision of how we wanted FASHION ACADEMY to become a musical. She was so right on with exactly what I was thinking. I got off the phone, emailed Steve, and said, “This is absolutely the perfect person to do this with! She gets it on so many levels.”
Sabrina: Writing with Sheryl was fantastic… she’s a really fast and speedy writer. And she’s a great, great lover of musicals. She knows every single musical onstage and all the actors in it! She knows Broadway like the back of her hand.
Sheryl: (Laughs) Yes, I worked for years for Theatre Week and In Theatre magazines. I still do a lot of work with theatre people and a lot of playwriting for young audiences. I’m a total theater geek.
So you two obviously hit it off.
Sheryl: We had this really fun working partnership and Sabrina schooled me a lot on what it is to write the book of a musical. I’m a book writer, but not a “book-of-a-musical” writer. It was a very, very rapid learning curve, but it was wonderful.
What about your daughter, Carrie?
Sabrina: Carrie was an incredible asset, because she’s a kid. It was really great to have the resource of someone who was actually the age we were writing to, who had the viewpoint of the audience we were writing for. Having her eye on the piece was an incredible help, especially as the entire book was inspired by her friends and her life. We were lucky to have her stop by rehearsals, or give us advice on how to get the story right.
Sheryl: She was concerned that it not sound too “grown up.” I remember sitting at the theatre doing a run through, and at a couple of points, Carrie said, “That’s not really what a kid would say.” She tweaked the dialogue a little bit.
And so much of what we’ve written has been what she’s seen or experienced. I love that. People always say they love that the books feel so real. And I always say, “That’s my daughter!” because they are real.
Why does FASHION ACADEMY really work as a musical?
Sabrina: The original book had great moments that needed to sing. When the main character, Mackenzie, tries to convince her mom to go to the fashion school, when the other kids judge her, her moments of both failure and redemption… all of these are songs. It was an incredibly strong story with highs and lows, each which seemed to scream out for a certain type of tune.
Sheryl: And Sabrina had this idea that each one of the characters would have a different sound.
Sabrina: I tried to pinpoint a different musical sound for each of the characters. I wanted Mickey to be like Betsey Johnson: rebellious, fun, fierce and totally original. But I was struggling at first to find her sound. Then the casting director in one of the early readings mentioned that she thought Mickey was a bit like Pink. So I went and I watched a bunch of Pink videos and interviews, and I tried to get that fierce nature and that drive that Pink has.
I knew I wanted a killer rap in this, and I thought that would be perfect for Jade. I’m a big, big fan of rap, so I gave her a spot to make that her musical language. And JC, who is completely obsessed with Madonna… it was clear he had to have a Madonna-type song. We actually went as far as to have him rolling on the stage as Madonna did at the VMAs!
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
Sheryl: There is a duet between Mickey and her Mom [“This Life of Mine”] about letting go and allowing her daughter to go off to school in New York City for the first time, and this sort of tug-of-war in her mom’s heart: “I love my daughter. I want her to be able to spread her wings and fly. But then again, I don’t want to lose her.” It was so in-the-moment of how I was as a mom at that time, and I just loved it.
And you, Sabrina?
Sabrina: There are a few. With “Dress the World,” I think I really got that feeling of a kid that is so excited to make her mark on the world, just rocking out in her bedroom; you could see her running around her small room making big dreams for her life.
“Elements of Design” was just fun to write. It basically teaches listeners about the four important rules of design. I researched that song a lot, reading books on fashion history and of course, reading books by Tim Gunn. I even met with Project Runway designers to get a better sense of how to speak about fashion design, and then worked the elements of design into the musical’s characters, with each character subliminally representing each design element. I think that came together in a good way. Aunt Olive and Mickey’s duet, “Go Back,” the Motown/Jackson 5 song… it’s a just a fun song. And Jade’s song [“What You Deserve”] could be a pop song on the radio. It’s just so bratty and empowering at the same time.
FASHION ACADEMY has great roles, especially for girls. Was that a conscious choice?
Sabrina: I think it was a natural outgrowth of both the material and the authors. And I think this is why it’s important to have more women writing and producing musicals, because constantly, you write from your own strength and your own experience. FASHION ACADEMY essentially was authored by two women who are very much in tune with children; it’s just a very honest story. So no, it wasn’t intentional. That being said, we’re thrilled that anyone can pull from the power of these character’s stories.
Sheryl: I think when we wrote this, it was less about a “girl power” message and more about a “find your true self” message. It’s also about embracing individuality. I feel like there’s a little bit of Mickey in everybody. If you follow your passion and your purpose, then you can’t fail. If you’re being true to your dreams and who you are, you can’t fail. That’s really the message of the whole musical.
What’s your own personal fashion or style?
Sabrina: I am totally crazy. I am well on my way to being that crazy old woman on the subway. (Laughs) Walking through the streets, I have a variety of fashion skins I wear: I constantly have a leopard print jacket, but in the summer I wear more West Indian prints. I patch things together a little like Mickey, but a lot of times also inspired by other cultures because I am first generation, from Bulgaria and Ecuador.
Sheryl: I’m very boring in my style. I’m a New Yorker, so pretty much my entire closet is black. (Laughs) But I do love my shoes and my bags! Sabrina and I had a bonding session over bags.
My daughter actually sews; I can’t sew a button. My dog ripped a toy and I handed it to her and said, “Fix this!” The irony to this whole thing is my great-grandfather emigrated from Poland and opened a tailor shop, and my great-grandmother helped him. I literally inherited none of that. But I did work for a long time styling; I started Life and Style magazine. And I still love writing about fashion and going to New York Fashion Week. Fashion is a passion, but I definitely think I am much better at buying it and writing about it than I am at doing anything creative with it!
Now the show will be performed all over the country. What do you think about reaching a wider audience?
Sheryl: I remember saying to Sabrina: it’s wonderful that we can put this on in New York City, but it would be more wonderful if it were being done all over the country in schools with kids who can get the message out. I really think this will teach kids how to be authentic in their everyday lives. I think it just speaks to, especially in this day and age, being true to who you are, not compromising to fit in, to meet the norm. It’s about really knowing who you are and embracing that and not being afraid of it.
Sabrina: I do believe that in the scope of musicals for children, this one really has the heart and the driving soul that will resonate with kids. If schools and audiences give Mickey a chance, they won’t be able to turn back. The tunes are infectious, and her story is one that we all can relate to. And it’s very positive. I think that’s what we need in the world right now: more vibrant voices, and children discovering the strength of their voices. Because they’re what’s going to lead us in the future.
Sheryl: I remember [Vital Theatre Artistic Director] Steve saying to us, “What’s the message of the show? What is it?” And we said, “It’s be who you are. Find your voice, and once you find it, shout it from the mountaintop.” The show has so many great messages, but we really landed on that. And we really loved bringing it to life.
So, if Mickey inspires a bunch of kids to all of a sudden decide they’re gonna start their own theatre company, or write their own plays, or write their own books, or be the next big fashion designer or the next big filmmaker, or whatever it is they’re dreaming of… if FASHION ACADEMY just gives them that little kick of “You can do it, and you don’t have to let anything stand in your way,” then I feel like we’ve really done our job.
Sheryl Berk (co-book) is a New York Times bestselling author and has collaborated on numerous celebrity books including Soul Surfer with Bethany Hamilton, Stages and Heart to Heart with Britney Spears, Between U and Me with Zendaya and Choosing Glee with Jenna Ushkowitz. But her “sweetest” coauthor by far has been her daughter Carrie Berk. Together, they write the bestselling Cupcake Club book series for Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. Carrie dreamed up Book 1, Peace, Love, and Cupcakes: The Cupcake Club, in her second grade class at PS 6, sprinkling it with her friends, teachers, and experiences. She is a well-known food critic in her own right, with a popular blog (Carrie’s Cupcake Critique) and Facebook page that boasts 90K followers.
Sabrina Chap (co-book, music, lyrics) is a Brooklyn-based songwriter, playwright, and cabaret artist. Her two CDs, Oompa! and We Are the Parade, have been called “guaranteeably vaudevillian chic and undeniably impressive,” establishing her as a musical force in the current neo-burlesque/cabaret revival. Primarily a cabaret artist, she enjoys writing in a variety of musical styles, and is excited to rise to the pop challenge in FASHION ACADEMY. Currently, she writes/performs for the shadow puppet musical MIDNIGHT RADIO SHOW, the electro-pop band Soft Sirens, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and her own electric guitar radio musical, POSTCARDS FROM NEVERMORE. sabrinachap.com
FASHION ACADEMY is available for licensing exclusively through Tams-Witmark. For more info, visit the FASHION ACADEMY show page.
All photos by Dave Sanders, from the 2015 Vital Theatre production of FASHION ACADEMY.