Fox Chapel grad is getting green light for stage, film projects

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Michael Mitnick looks back on the chutzpah it took to cold-call the parents of Tony winner and Dormont native Stephen Flaherty and chuckles. Then a Fox Chapel Area High School junior, he introduced himself as a fan and asked if their son would come to see a musical he had co-written that was being produced at his school. The co-creator of "Ragtime" was busy with "Seussical" on Broadway at the time, but his parents attended and sent a videotape of the show to Mr. Flaherty.

"A few short weeks later, he sent me a seven-page single-spaced letter that was encouraging and carefully critical," Mr. Mitnick said, amazement creeping into his voice over the phone. "It was the beginning of a great education. I went on to be Steve and Lynn Ahrens' assistant on a bunch of projects, including 'The Glorious Ones' at Pittsburgh Public Theater."

The education of Michael Mitnick, 29, also has included Harvard (class of 2006), where he collaborated on one of the college's famed Hasty Pudding shows, and three years of developing his own works at Yale Drama. His plays have been produced from Denver to New York City, and in the future, you can expect to see his name in Broadway programs and back-lit on the big screen.

Here are some projects that will carry the "written by" Mitnick credit:

• Director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted") and producer Steve Zaillian ("Moneyball," "Schindler's List") are set to film his screenplay "The Current Wars." The script, derived from a musical he wrote while at Yale, is about the public battle between Thomas Edison and Pittsburgh's George Westinghouse for domination of the early electric-power industry. A result of their AC vs. DC tug of war was the electric chair.

• He is writing the screenplay of Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning "The Giver" for star Jeff Bridges, and a script based on Oliver Jeffers' "The Incredible Book Eating Boy" for Universal.

• His sci-fi play "Ed, Downloaded" was recently produced to raves at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Other works are bound for Seattle and Dallas, and "there'll be a musical that I co-wrote at one of the big nonprofits during the off season in New York."

• He has provided additional lyrics for "this crazy King Kong thing" -- the theatrical spectacle "King Kong Live Onstage!," set for a May opening in Melbourne, Australia.

• And then there's the musical adaptation of "Animal House," with music by Barenaked Ladies. Casey Nicholaw ("The Book of Mormon") is set to direct for Universal Pictures Stage Productions.

"Getting 'Animal House' was a lot of luck. I was at a party and ran into one of the Broadway producers, who said he had heard my song, which was kind of a novelty, at a showcase. He asked if I had written any comedies, and I sent him a play I'd written at Yale -- I didn't know he was shopping for writers. He liked the play, shared it with Universal, and they asked me to come back with an outline for 'Animal House.' I started to write, 'Lights up, Larry meets Dorfman' ...."

A two-page outline just didn't cut it, so he wrote a 120-page version of "Animal House," with notes such as "Song with '60s sound goes here." Mr. Nicholaw gave it the OK, and he had the job.

"We have a complete draft of the show now, but it's still the early days," he said. "It can take five to six years to get a show to Broadway, and that's if you're lucky. It's been a lot of fun so far, but now we have to make sure everything works with the story rights, and we are being inventive and faithful."

The roads to Broadway and Hollywood began in Pittsburgh, where his parents made sure he was well-versed in piano and took him to see productions at the Pittsburgh CLO and Public and City theaters. He continued to be inspired at school by Craig Cannon, director of choral activities, and theater arts teacher Sally Meyers, and it helped that he was competitive with his older sister, who also wrote music during their school days.

He recalled that his family vacationed at the beach once, "and everything else was battlefields and presidents' houses and Thomas Edison's factory." That last one left a lasting impression and sparked an idea for his first assignment at Yale: Bring in an idea from history to work on as a playwright. He acknowledges his eye-rolling pun that "a light bulb flashed in my head" while reading the Wikipedia entry on Edison.

"The War of the Currents" section recounted the battle between Westinghouse and Edison. "It resulted in the death of all these animals -- dogs, cats, cows, cattle ... and there was Edison's secret involvement with the invention of the electric chair. I started to fall in love with the history."

Extensive research turned into a musical version of the story that was workshopped at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. Later, his agent suggested he adapt one of his stage works for the screen, and the script caught the attention of producer/director Bekmambetov, who snatched up the rights to the script.

With all of the irons in the fire, it's hard to pigeonhole Mr. Mitnick as a composer, lyricist, playwright or screenwriter, and that's fine by him.

"It was great having my work done in Denver, and the fact that it wasn't on Broadway doesn't mean that much to me. ... Really, I'm just having fun with what is put immediately in front of me."

For his family and for himself, there is one place he'd love to see his work find a home.

"It would be great to have something produced in Pittsburgh," he said.

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Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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