Every day, enduring works of literary fiction are plucked from the dusty shelves of used bookstores and read for the first time.
It’s how Northeastern alum Brooke Di Spirito discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, published in 1922. The 21-year-old said she fell in love with Fitzgerald’s “poetic prose,” his piercing psychic detail and elaborate turns of phrase. True to the Fitzgerald throughline, the book examines the decadent underbelly of American high society in the early part of the twentieth century, through the lens of a troubled romance—one purportedly based on the writer’s own marriage.
Di Spirito, a lifelong ballet dancer with a parallel interest in writing—a passion she describes as a “close second” to dance—so loved the Jazz Age novel that it gave her a radical idea: She would adapt the story into a musical.
“I found that his pattern of writing very closely mirrored some of the aspects of what makes musical theater good,” Di Spirito says.
She cites Fitzgerald’s metaphor-infused passages, such as: “Halcyon days like boats drifting along slow-moving rivers; spring evenings full of a plaintive melancholy that made the past beautiful and bitter, bidding them look back and see that the loves of other summers long gone were dead with the forgotten waltzes of their years.”
Di Spirito says the rhythms and cadences of Fitzgerald’s sentences evoked music and, combined with the book’s narrative flow, helped guide her own artistic reimagining of the novel on stage.
The artistic leap from words to song—and from song to dance—was famously articulated by American dancer Bob Fosse, who said: “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel.” Di Spirito says she sees these tensions at work in Fitzgerald’s prose.
“He has the literary version of this progression of a motion down really well,” Di Spirito says. “That might be why he became so popular.”
She began fleshing out the elements of the musical during her second year at Northeastern. After completing a draft, the then-19-year-old pitched the idea to Northeastern’s Stage Musical Theater Company. The group voted on whether to commit actors and dancers to the project.
Ultimately, the vote was an even split—falling short of the support necessary for the group to pursue the plan.
“They weren’t super happy about this second-year student, coming to us and asking to do such a large project,” Di Spirito says. “I was sad for a little bit. But I kept thinking to myself, ‘I have to do this thing.’”
She went back to the drawing board, strengthened her proposal, and returned to the group with a more refined blueprint of her vision. This time, they agreed to move forward.
It’s not often the case, Di Spirito says, that musicals are written, composed, and choreographed by the same person. On top of never having written a musical before, she’s had to work on cultivating an ear for musical composition. Typically, Di Spirito says, a composer is responsible for writing the melodies in a given score, which is then handed off to an orchestrator to develop further into a complete piece of music.
With the backing of the Northeastern’s theater group, Di Spirito went to work. There were months of rehearsals, script revisions, and other tweaks along the way. But, as fate would have it, one month before the show was set to be performed live, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing classrooms, businesses, and indoor venues to close.
Disappointed but not demoralized, Di Spirito went into quarantine with the determination to make the script even better. She was able to recruit a new cast to rehearse and workshop the show over Zoom. After another five months of fine-tuning, another COVID-19 wave foiled plans to premier the work yet again.
Di Spirito then graduated from Northeastern in May 2021. Shortly afterward, she moved to New York City, where she again found willing support and interested parties.
Though the recent omicron surge brought about yet another production delay, Di Spirito says casting for her musical interpretation of The Beautiful and the Damned is nearly complete, with a tentative premier scheduled for June 30, 2022, at the Jeanne Rimsky Theater in New York. The show is expected to run for two-and a-half hours, with one intermission, and includes a live orchestra.
Di Spirito credits her success to many of her Northeastern colleagues, friends, and mentors.
“I wanted to see if anyone would take any sort of chance on me,” she says. “Turns out, I was lucky, because a number of people did.”
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