Schaefer musical

The iconic scene of Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the National Aquarium seal pool is part of "Do It Now," the new Schaefer musical. (Archive photo, Baltimore Sun / July 15, 1981)

William Donald Schaefer sang Baltimore's praises loudly, so it's only fitting that a new musical should be singing his.

The title of "Do It Now!" — music by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra member Jonathan Jensen, book by Baltimore-born playwright Rich Espey — comes from Schaefer's signature phrase during his 1971-1987 tenure as mayor of the city.

The musical, which gets a public reading Sunday at Theatre Project, remains a work in progress, but the focus on Schaefer's Baltimore career is firmly settled.

"Being mayor was what Schaefer loved the most," Espey said. "He wasn't as effective as governor." Added Jensen: "After he left Baltimore for Annapolis, the less attractive aspects of his personality took over. So the musical ends as Schaefer decides to run for governor."

They're not planning a sequel, though. The creative team is focused on finishing "Do It Now!" and, toward that end, will hold a talk-back session with Sunday's audience.

"I'm hoping we'll have a strong sense after of what needs to be done, what works and what doesn't," Jensen said.

The first draft of the show was tried out in April at Germano's, the restaurant/cabaret in Little Italy. At Theatre Project, the second draft will be presented with Espey reading stage directions and descriptions from the script to help set the scenes. A cast of eight will portray all the characters in the 90-minute show.

Espey, 45, grew up in Schaefer's Baltimore.

"I was 5 when he was first elected mayor and 20 when he was elected governor," Espey said. "When I went to college in Philadelphia and told people I was from Baltimore, it was the first time I realized the perception of the city was not positive."

"Do It Now!" focuses primarily on how Schaefer set about reversing that image.

"As crazy as he could be, he really meant it when he said Baltimore is a great city, at a time when no one else was saying that," Jensen said. "Even if he didn't turn everything around, he changed people's perception."

The musical does not cover just the legendary moments of Schaefer's mayoral term, such as the indelible dip in the seal pool of the National Aquarium.

"Another interesting aspect of the Schaefer story is his longtime relationship with Hilda Mae Snoops, which was largely private and doesn't fit into the pattern of a traditional musical comedy love story," said Jensen, 59, a bassist in the BSO since 1983. "We've had to use some dramatic license there."

Although Jensen and Schaefer did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people about Schaefer, they never got to the heart of the Snoops matter.

"People said very little about Hilda Mae," Espey said. "I've inferred that they just didn't know enough about it. Schaefer was a complex man who had an amazing drive and was singularly focused. There is still a lot to figure out."

Besides Snoops, there seems to have been only one other woman in Schaefer's personal life.

"His closest relationship was with his mother," Espey said. "She rode him pretty hard. I didn't want to go the psychiatric route in the musical, but the same actress plays his mother and Hilda Mae, which, hopefully, says a lot."

Jensen hopes his score will say a lot, too, about the characters.

"Most of the songs are pretty traditional, with a 1950s Broadway sound," Jensen said. "There's also a 1920s tango and a girl-group, doo-wop sound for Schaefer's 'girls,'" which is what he called his devoted group of female aides.

Jensen started writing the songs — words and music — shortly after Schaefer's death in 2011 and before he had any idea who might write a book for the musical.

It was local playwright James Magruder who suggested Espey.

"Rich was the right person at the right time," Jensen said. "I felt like all of this was waiting to happen. I hope it all falls into place."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

A reading of "Do It Now!" will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $10 donation suggested. Call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.org.

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