When Chris Dimond and Michael Kooman collaborated on a musical for a thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University seven years ago, they had no idea that it would hit the big time.
First performed before an audience of four at the school, "Dani Girl," written by Mr. Dimond with music by Mr. Kooman, has since entertained audiences across the United States and in Canada and Australia.
The show will soon return to its roots for a nonworkshop premiere at Stage 62 Theater in Carnegie at 8 p.m. May 9-11 and 16-18 and at 2 p.m. May 12 and 19. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students and seniors.
The story is loosely based on Mr. Dimond's cousin, Danny Naccarelli of Carnegie, who died from leukemia at the age of 13. Mr. Dimond, who was in college when Danny passed away, said he has always struggled to make sense of the loss.
"It was a tough one to write, but I think that's sort of what made it worth writing in a lot of ways," he said. "There was a lot of personal trauma and emotion wrapped up in it."
Born and raised in Thornburg, Mr. Dimond, 34, graduated from Bishop Canevin High School in 1997 and attended Duquesne University for his undergraduate work. After obtaining a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Pittsburgh and pursued a master's degree in dramatic writing from CMU, where he met Mr. Kooman, of Altoona, in a lyric writing class.
Mr. Kooman, 28, said Mr. Dimond was the best lyricist in the class and that he wanted to write music with him, so the two worked on a few single songs together.
Upon graduating in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in music composition and a minor in conducting, Mr. Kooman planned to move to New York City but said he put those plans on hold after Mr. Dimond asked him to stay in Pittsburgh to work on "Dani Girl" -- his third musical and his master's thesis.
Though pediatric cancer wasn't something that Mr. Kooman said he ever would have chosen as the subject matter for a musical, he said he believed in Mr. Dimond and that it has served them well.
"Neither of us had any idea that it would still be playing today. We just put our all into this one little show that we thought was going to be a fun project," he said. "It's a piece that I think has struck a chord with a lot of people."
The musical is centered on a young girl named Dani who has been diagnosed with cancer and is on a quest to get her hair back after losing it during treatments for the disease. Mr. Dimond described his main character as imaginative and resilient and said he chose to portray Dani as a young girl because there is something innately vulnerable about a young girl with cancer.
"We knew very early on that if we're writing the right piece about a young girl living with cancer, we have to make it the exact opposite of what people expected," he said. "We sort of came at it from an entirely different angle and tried to really find the moments of levity and hope and kind of intermix them with the obvious moments of despair and darkness."
Mr. Dimond said he wanted to capture the fascinating outlooks on life that he said his cousin, Danny, and other children he met who were struggling with terminal diagnoses possessed and their means of coping through imagination and role play.
"They have a greater understanding of what it really means to be alive than a lot of adults do," he said. "Part of what I really wanted to capture was just how these kids do take on very, very adult topics. In some instances, the children have much healthier ways of dealing with them than adults do."
When composing the music for the piece, Mr. Kooman said he just followed the essence, vibrance and fast-paced imagination of Dani's character and her positive outlook on life.
"It was purposeful on both of our parts to really keep the essence of a child as much as possible," he said.
Despite the difficult subject matter, Mr. Dimond said many people have responded positively to the piece through their own personal connection or experiences dealing with the issues that the piece takes on.
"They were initially hesitant to come to see a play that was about something that hit so close to home, but the process of experiencing the play provided them with an outlet for all of the various emotions that are wrapped up in there," he said. "While the play deals with dark themes and dark subject matter, it's also very joyful and hopeful and uses a lot of humor to deal with the circumstances."
Mr. Dimond said "Dani Girl" is a piece that is very close to his heart and he is excited that it will soon premiere in Pittsburgh, specifically in Carnegie where Danny lived.
"To have it done in Pittsburgh is just going to be really tremendous," he said. "It's going to have a lot of meaning to me on a lot of different levels."
Mr. Dimond and Mr. Kooman live in New York City. They have received the prestigious Jonathan Larson grant and are recipients of the inaugural Lorenz Hart Award. Their latest collaboration is a musical theater writing program they designed for high school students, for which they received funding through a grant from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.