Caught in the Middle: A musical filled with stolen words, purloined ideas, and personal philosophy

I spent this weekend watching the first two productions of Caught in the Middle, a musical that my writing partner, Andy Mayo, and I wrote about life in middle school. It was produced in full for the first time ever by a local theater company.

This was the second show that I have written that I was able to see performed onstage, and it never disappoints. 

It's thrilling, to be honest. The writing isn't always fun, and getting it produced can be a pain in the ass (though truthfully, it's my partner's pain in the ass), but the final results are fantastic.

I wrote this show more than two years ago, and while I remembered the story and its characters, I didn't really remember it. With about ten minutes to go in the show, I found myself wondering, "How is this thing going to end?"

It's also fascinating the listen to the influences and personal history that I have embedded within the story and the dialogue. Watching the show was like peeking through a notebook full of thoughts and ideas that I have espoused, stolen, appropriated, or admired over the years. 

I heard myself in the voices of many of the characters, speaking about the nature of teaching, the sadness associated with growing up, my ever-present existential crisis, my internal struggle for meaning in this life, and the absurdity of homework.

I heard the words of my colleague of almost two decades, Donna Gosk, on the nature of getting older - words that were originally spoken by her late mother.

I heard the voices of so many of my former students as they return to elementary school after having been away for a year or two in middle school. 

I heard a haiku that appeared in the New York Times years ago that continues own a piece of my heart. 

I heard inspiration derived from children's author Mo Willems.

I heard the words of my daughter. 

I also saw moments from my own life reproduced onstage.

  • A moment in a gym class at Maloney Middle School circa 1984.
  • A moment in a high school cafeteria circa 1987. 
  • Moments from many of my high school relationships with girls. 

Having forgotten much of the show before seeing it for the first time, it was a great reminder of how the work that we do is so influenced by the people and events around us. How those influences become a part of us, embedded in our DNA. 

I do not write in a bubble. I don't create in a void. I do not start with whole cloth. The tapestry that I weave is a patchwork, filled with the words and images and people of my lifetime.  

It was a great show. I can't wait to see it again. I really hope that someday, I will have the opportunity.  

I found someone who thinks EXACTLY like I do. Almost as if I put the words right into her heart and mind.

The strangest thing happened. 

I attended a rehearsal for Caught in the Middle, the musical that I wrote more than a year ago for a summer camp. It's being produced by a local theater company and makes it's world premiere on Friday night. 

You should come.

As I'm watching a scene, one of the characters stands, moves to center stage, and begins talking about the nature of teaching. "There are two kinds of teachers..." she begins. Then, after a series of jokes, she speaks lines I don't exactly remember writing, but I can hear myself onstage, I hear someone other than me saying things that I believe with all my heart.

It was like watching a different version of me. Someone with all of my beliefs in a decidedly younger, more female body than mine. 

It makes sense, of course. It's only natural for a musical that I wrote to contain lines that have come from me, but it was surreal to see a person standing in for me onstage, spouting my philosophy. Filling my role. Professing my beliefs with the same conviction - albeit faked - as me. 

Ever since I wrote my first musical - a rock opera entitled The Clowns - a few years ago, there have been few things as thrilling as watching actors speak my words. Even if you've never wanted to write a play or musical before - and I never did and often still don't - I can't recommend it enough. 

Hearing the words that you write in your head is one thing. 

Hearing a professionally trained actor - or in the case of Caught in the Middle - a talented teen actor speak your words is remarkable. 

And if that's not enough to get you excited about writing a play, you can look forward to the day when you can bring your seven year-old daughter to a rehearsal and watch her stare in wonder as your show unfolds before her eyes.

Wait for the moment when she asks you to write a show just for her, so that she can take the stage and sing and act someday like these big boys and big girls in front of her.

Wait for the moment when she tells you that she loved what she saw and can't wait to see it for real this weekend.  

Wait for the moment when she kisses you and says, "You write good stuff, Daddy. Funny, too."

It's a pain in the ass to write a play. Even more so when you're writing a musical. 

It's an even bigger pain in the ass to get someone to produce it.  

These singular moments make it all worth it.

I think. 

Caught in the Middle: Our world premier!

Caught in the Middle is a contemporary musical that journeys through a day in the life of middle school children. Touching on their, teachers, home work, lunch, "going out", bullying, friendship, and resolution. Don't miss the world premier of this wonderful show. Tickets will be available at the door. Or email to reserve at will call. Payment will be accepted at the door.

"Caught in the Middle"
March 18 & 19 at 7:00pm
March 20 at 4:00pm
Tickets: $12.00 adults, $6.00 students
Saint James Episcopal Church
19 Walden Street, West Hartford

The payoff for a writer or a performer is an infinitesimal sliver of the job. Too many forget this and aren’t willing to do the work.

Saturday was a good day for me.

It began with the first performance ever of “Caught in the Middle,” the tween musical written by writing partner, Andy Mayo, and myself. It was produced at a performing arts camp in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and like our previous musical, The Clowns, I fell in love with the show while watching it performed on stage.

image image image image

Then Elysha and I left for New York so I could perform in The Liar Show in the West Village. I told a story about my unfortunate participation in a bachelorette party in a McDonald’s crew room when I was 19 years-old.


A friend was kind enough to comment on how much I had going on that day. “It must be exciting to have so many creative things going on in your life,” she said.

It’s true. Days like Saturday are exciting, but they come with a cost. When I talk to fledging writers, storytellers, and other people involved in the arts, I’m always quick to remind them that days like Saturday are few and far between.

They account for about 1% of the job.

The other 99% of the job is a lot of hard, tedious, and lonely work.

“Caught in the Middle” was more than a year in the making. It involved writing, collaborating, rewriting, revising, and more rewriting. It was hundred of hours spent crafting scenes, integrating music, developing characters, and agonizing over plot. My writing partner, Andy, had to poke, prod, and cajole me to continue working.

It wasn’t easy.

My invitation to perform in The Liar Show was the result of almost three years of storytelling, including more than 40 appearances at The Moth and other storytelling shows and the launch of our own storytelling organization, Speak Up. Thousands of hours of work have made me the storyteller I am today and gave me the opportunity to perform on Saturday night.

I didn’t happen overnight.

I was reading Billy Crystal’s memoir, Still Foolin’ ‘Em, and learned that in order to pursue his career in comedy, he became a stay-at-home father in a time when that was exceptionally rare. When his wife arrived home from work in the evening, he would join her for dinner and prepare his set for later that night, sometimes writing and sometimes rehearsing.


Then at 10:00, he would embark on an hour long commute to New York City, hoping for a spot on the stage at Catch a Rising Star before 1:00 AM so that he could perform his ten minute routine.

Then he would return home by 2:00 or 3:00 and begin the routine again at 7:00 when his daughter awoke and his wife left for work.

Billy Crystal did not become the entertainer and star that he is today because he was talented. He worked exceptionally hard, made enormous sacrifices, dedicated his life to his dream, and was smart enough to marry a woman who supported that dream.

By the way, he sacrificed to find the right woman, too. He transferred colleges as a sophomore, leaving Marshall University, a baseball scholarship, and a chance to play the game he loved at the college level for Nassau Community College and later New York University after meeting his wife and knowing that a long distance relationship would probably not last.

Rather than risk losing the woman of his dreams, he gave up baseball to chase her down.

The man understood how to make sacrifices.

So yes, Saturday was a great day for me. I loved watching something that I had written performed onstage. Hearing my words in other people’s mouths is always thrilling and makes me want to write for the stage again.

And yes, performing alongside the likes of Ophira Eisenberg, Tracy Rowland, and Matthew Mercier at The Liar Show was thrilling, too. Simply being asked to perform in this popular and well-reviewed show was an honor.

But it was a long, long road to Saturday’s payoff. Many, many miles.

Too often, I think that writers, performers, and other people striving for a career in the arts see those 1% Saturdays and dream the dream, forgetting about the 99% (or worse, glamorizing the 99%) that is required to make those Saturdays a  reality.

The best moment on Saturday for me was a simple one. Standing off to the side, watching these teens and tweens perform the show, I caught sight of my daughter, sitting in the audience, watching my show with rapt attention. Bopping her head to the music. Smiling. Leaning forward in anticipation. Laughing at my jokes.

This was better than all the applause I received that day.