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'Nellie: The Musical' premiering in Worcester tells story of pioneer 19th-century reporter

February 2024

Read the original article in Worcester Magazine


Nellie Bly's undercover reporting on the horrific conditions and abuse of women at the Insane Asylum of New York in 1887 led to institutional reforms that changed the way the world looks at treatment of the mentally ill.

It's a real-life story that will resonate with the world premiere of "Nellie: The Musical" at the Worcester Historical Museum, with eight performances Feb. 29 to March 9 produced by 4th Wall Stage Company.


'Her whole life is trailblazing'

4th Wall, the Worcester Historical Museum and Open Sky Community Services are partnering to present the musical for Women’s History Month.

"Her whole life is trail-blazing," said playwright Robby Steltz, of Duluth, Minnesota, who wrote a one-act play, "Nellie," that has been adapted into "Nellie: The Musical" with book by Steltz and music by Worcester playwright, composer, performer and educator Stephen Murray.

The play and the musical tell of the women in the asylum, many of whom were institutionalized for "frivolous" reasons, and treated cruelly, Murray said. They were given insufficient food and poor clothes, and forced to take ice cold baths in unhygienic conditions. The mortality rate was high. "They are the heroes in this. Their story allowed changes to be made," Steltz said.


A blending of elements

With the upcoming production, Steltz and Murray hope to reach more people with these stories. Meanwhile, the story of the production itself has some ghostly elements and amazing coincidences.

"Nellie: The Musical" is directed and produced by Barbara Guertin and Robbin Joyce of 4th Wall Stage Company with musical direction by Murray and technical direction by Eric L’Ecuyer. The cast includes Catie Verostick as Nellie, Jeanine Belcastro, Marissa Browning, Nicole Lien, Tracy Martino, Libby Stearns, Megan Paluzzi, Kenly Murray and Amy Hall, with Derek Sylvester playing all of the male roles.

Murray, a music teacher at St. Paul Diocesan Junior/Senior High School, is a prolific writer of shows. These include the romantic comedy "Making Scents," which has been performed four times locally dating back to its premiere in 1995, and a musical adaptation of the famous baseball poem "Casey at the Bat," written by Ernest L. Thayer in Worcester in 1886.  Many of his musicals have a youth audience in mind such as “Pom-Pom Zombies,” “Katastrophe Kate,” and "Greece Is the Word: The Zeusical!” They have been performed across the country and internationally.

Guertin is managing director of 4th Wall Stage Company and a board member of the Worcester Historical Museum. Last year, the museum and 4th Wall presented a staged reading of Murray's "Casey at the Bat." "We started talking and he told me about 'Nellie." I loved the idea of the story and thought maybe we could do it for Women's History Month," Guertin said. "We all chatted about it and said, 'Let's do it.'"


Premonition of success

Both Steltz and Murray have had works published by Eldridge Publishing Co. of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a leading publisher of plays and musicals.

"Nellie" is Steltz's first published play. "I always thought it would be successful," he said during a recent telephone interview from Duluth. He plans to come to Worcester to meet Murray for the first time in person and attend the show. Steltz and Murray will take part in a talk with audiences following the 2 p.m. March 2 performance.

The one-act piece is based on Bly's book "Ten Days in a Mad-House" (1887), which came out of her undercover report.


Undercover expo

In the late 1800s rumors were circulating about alleged maltreatment taking place on Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, home of the Insane Asylum of New York. Bly, a reporter for the New York World, feigned insanity in order to be committed, so she could expose the neglect, abuse and brutality endured by female patients. She suffered with them.

The newspaper secured her release. Bly wrote, "I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret — pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself."

Murray noted that there is a monument to Nellie Bly, The Girl Puzzle, on Roosevelt Island.


'Almost like a ghost experience'

Steltz is a graduate of the Graduate Creative Writing (Playwriting) program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. He said he had been reading "Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood, a historical fiction about a woman imprisoned for murder, which led a fascination with women asylum and "insane" stories. As he was researching on Google, the name Nellie Bly kept coming up, he said. Coincidentally, a friend shared a short video on Nellie Bly.

Then Steltz got some unexpected help while struggling with his script.

"It was like a ghost experience. It was almost like I went into this trance or something. There was a knock at the door and there she was," he said of seeing an apparition of Nellie Bly. "I tell people she's like a real person to me. She said, 'Are you making coffee or are you making tea, because I'm gonna come inside and you're gonna listen to me.' She sat on the couch and she told me the story of her life."

Bly (1864-1922), the pen name of Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, had by any measure a remarkable life. After "Ten Days in a Mad-House" she took a 72-day trip around the world inspired by the 1873 book "Around the World in Eighty Days" by Jules Verne. She was again reporting for the New York World and compiled a book "Around the World in Seventy-Two Days" in 1890. Later, she was one of the few women news correspondents in Europe during World War I. Steltz has thought about writing a larger biographical play about Bly, but decided to keep with "Ten Days in a Mad-House" as his focus for this project.


A source of pride

The one-act "Nellie" has done well. "In April, the 75th production and counting of 'Nellie,' " Steltz said. "It's been done in 13,14 states at least and I'm really proud of it." The play has been performed by community theaters and schools, and has won one-act performance competitions.

Steltz said he joked with Meredith Edwards, president of Eldridge Publishing Co., that "it would be a really good musical because it had musical elements in it."

Actually, the play does, Steltz said, including a two-part poem that is the prologue and epilogue of the play with the ending more optimistic than the beginning.


Always count on zombies

Edwards thought there were musical elements as well, and approached Murray to take a look at it and consider adapting the one-act to a musical.

She introduced Murray and Steltz via email, and Murray contacted Steltz.

As it tuned out, when Steltz was in the eighth grade in middle school he performed in his school's musical, which was Murray's "Pom-Pom Zombies." He had the role of Myron the Nerd. 

Also, the friend who shared the short video on Nellie Bly was the choreographer for the middle school production of "Pom-Pom Zombies."

Steltz didn't make the connection until about a week working on the collaboration. But then ... " 'Pom-Pom Zombies' was my favorite show in middle school. It's just incredible to me of all people I could be working with it was Stephen," he said.

The two have duly got along well as they've worked on "Nellie: The Musical."

"I'm really glad to be teamed up with him for this project," Murray said.

"He was so great about it. If there was anyone I would work with again it would be Stephen," said Steltz. "It's terrifying to give your baby up, but I'm so proud of it. It's exactly what it should be or needs to be."


Mutual respect

It's not uncommon to hear of creative battles among collaborators, Steltz said. "We never had that. He had so much respect for what was already there."

Scenes have been added, songs written and a new character introduced, and "Nellie: The Musical" is a two-act show.

Steltz said they worked quickly, emailing back and forth. "I sent Stephen all my notes. We both actually wrote the lyrics."

Murray's songs for "Nellie: The Musical" have quite a different tone than some of his pieces for youth performances/audiences.

"It's been exciting to write in a more mature manner," Murray said."I've gotten to explore different kinds of music and I didn't hold back. I'm lucky with 4th Wall, there are so many great voices to handle the music."

With the poetic opening he said he "just set what Robby had written as if it was a libretto."

Elsewhere the music can be sinister and infused with tension. Mrs. Grupe, an evil figure who works at the asylum, "purposely sings a note off to create tension."

Also, "I did a typical Disney villain (music), I couldn't help it."

Meanwhile, there are "characters who do not have happy endings. The music is reflective of that," Murray said.

"There are a few uplifting moments ... When Nellie is deciding to do this (go undercover she sings), 'What I can do can make a difference.' "

The end "sort of brings you back to the beginning. We come back and there is hope ... Nellie Bly made a difference."

"Nellie: The Musical" was given a public read-through in 2022 at Calliope Theatre in  Boylston, the home of Calliope Productions.


Weathering the weather

There was a storm in Boylston. Steltz was watching the read-through online via Facebook in Duluth, where there was also a storm. He had technical difficulties trying to watch the second half but said "what I've heard we had a very positive reaction — standing ovation, people crying."

Murray was pleased but said the storm cut down on attendance. For the world premiere, "there are only two cast members that were also part of the reading two years ago. Nicole Lian, and my wife, Tracy Martino. They are playing the same roles they performed in the reading at Calliope Productions.

Tracy and Nicole also performed together in 4th Wall's production of my adaptation of 'Casey at the Bat.'" In another coincidence, "Tracy and Derek Sylvester are reunited in a cast of a Murray musical having worked together in the first production of 'Making Scents' at WCLOC (WCLOC Theater Company) about 30 years ago."

Rehearsals for the world premiere have been going well, Murray said. "I'm so impressed with the work ethic. The voices are wonderful." Murray has been working with Verostick for the first time. "Her voice is wonderful and acting spot-on," he said of her portrayal of Nellie.

"We have a wonderful cast and production team at 4th Wall. I am excited to see this show come to life and can't wait for audiences to see it," Murray said.

"The cast is really fantastic," said Guertin. "And so well prepared. I have to be honest, it's blown me away."

Indelible images

Steltz, whose day job is selling jewelry, said, "I'm this small-town kid from Duluth who has had this production travel around the United States."

He is still seeing Bly. "Her image will come up somewhere," he said. She indicates, "'I'm gonna help you' but she'll also call me out. I see her reflection. She'll wave — 'I'm still with you.'"

Steltz is looking forward to coming here, seeing the production and meeting Murray. "I can't wait to meet him face to face."

Murray concurred about meeting Steltz. "I'm really excited. "

Both said separately that they would be interested in writing a work based on Bly's "Around the World in Seventy-Two Days," so maybe there will be a future collaboration to talk about.


Eye on opportunities

As for what they are hoping will come from "Nellie: The Musical," Murray said, "I would love to have more people see it and be aware of it. I'd love to see more theater companies interested in producing this show. It's a great opportunity for women and one male actor, community theater, and high schools where there are so many women interested in doing theater."

While Nellie Bly is a familiar name to some, Steltz has also observed that there are "people who have never heard of this woman before. I would hope to see it (the musical) have a really good run. I feel we will get more people knowing the story through the musical. I would hope it becomes a bigger thing."

The musical is set in New York, and Steltz would like to see it performed there. That said, "I just want it see it done as many times as it needs to be. I want to reach whoever that needs it the most."


'Nellie: The Musical' presented by 4th Wall Stage Company

Where: Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm St., Worcester

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 29 and March 1; 2 and 7 p.m. March 2; 7 p.m. March 7 and 8; 2 and 7 p.m. March 9

How much: $27; seniors/museum members $24; students, $14. 4thwallstagecompany.org

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