Sam Carner wasn’t even in high school when he wrote his first full-blown musical, about a rabbit who runs for president, full of bouncy campaign songs.

The show was put on by the Children’s Theatre of Maine, where staff knew immediately that Carner’s talent and drive could take him far. More than 25 years later, he’s an established writer of musical theater based in New York, with songs that have been performed by Broadway stars and shows that have been produced around the country.

His musical “Unlock’d,” written with composer Derek Gregor, will be produced at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham in March as part of a tune-up process that is intended to land the show on Broadway. Set in sort of a fantasy 18th-century England, it’s a whimsical coming-of-age story with a musical fusion that includes baroque, classical and contemporary pop.

“Sam as a kid was like he is now, passionate, smart as a whip and so dedicated to the craft,” said Lisa DiFranza, who was artistic director of the Children’s Theatre of Maine in the 1990s, when Carner wrote shows there. “He took to the process right away, revising, collaborating. From the minute he wrote that first show, he just threw himself into it. We had more than an inkling he’d be successful.”

Carner, 40, lives in Manhattan with his wife and son. He collaborates often with Gregor, chiefly writing lyrics and the show’s story, while Gregor takes charge of the music.

In 2004, he and Gregor won the Richard Rodgers Award – named for the legendary creator of many Broadway musicals – for the first version of “Unlock’d.” The award is given to help subsidize New York productions by developing artists. In 2015, Carner won the $100,000 Ed Kleban Prize – named for the lyricist for “A Chorus Line,” among other shows, and given for excellence in lyric writing.

Songs he’s written with Gregor have been performed on stage and recorded by well-known Broadway stars, including Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”), Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon”), Tituss Burgess (“The Little Mermaid”) and Annaleigh Ashford (“Wicked”).

His songs tell stories, a really wide array of stories. “A Delicate Thing” from “Unlock’d” is about a pair of 18th-century brothers trying to understand women. “Advice to a Young Firefly,” from “Toast,” is sung by a drag queen in post-Katrina New Orleans, just after a nightclub housing homeless people has been bulldozed. “Dancing Pairs” from “Island Song” is about a 30-something New Yorker with social anxiety looking for love.

“One thing that makes Sam stand out is that he’s an intellectual – other writers are intelligent but that’s different – he’s just so well-read and knows so much about theater history and why things work or don’t work,” said Marlo Hunter, a New York-based stage director who has worked with Carner, as well as on various Broadway shows. “His empathy for his characters is off the charts.”

Carner said one thing he’s always loved about musical theater is the idea of collaborating with writers and performers, as well as the audience.

“I find it fascinating that sometimes how you say something is more important than what you say (in a song) and what gets the audience to react,” said Carner.

Carner works with junior Ben Walker and senior Meg Ward during a rehearsal for his musical “Unlock’d” at USM in Gorham. The show will play on the Gorham campus in March.

CAUGHT THE BUG YOUNG

Carner credits the “incredibly passionate” adults in Maine who let him write and produce musicals as teenager, including those at the Children’s Theatre of Maine, with helping him grow in his chosen career.

He also credits his parents and the rich theater scene around southern Maine. With his family, he was a regular visitor to Portland Stage, Maine State Music Theatre, Portland Players, Oak Street Theatre and others.

“I probably saw 30 or 40 different shows a year, including a lot of obscure stuff,” said Carner. “I loved Irving Berlin as a kid, and the first show that really got to me was ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ when I was about 6. We’d play that on car trips all the time.”

Both of Carner’s parents were teachers at USM. His father, Frank Carner, taught English and his mother, Marcia Carner, taught art. His mother passed away in 2001 after a battle with cancer. A flower garden on the Portland campus is named for her.

Carner has made up song lyrics for as long as he can remember and took piano lessons as soon as he could. When he was about 10, he wrote a children’s story that included songs he had written, as well. His father convinced him to try to turn it into a musical.

The show became “The Rise of FTR” about a rabbit who learns to speak English and runs for governor of Maine to stop the persecution of rabbits by farmers. He then goes on to run for, and win, the office of president of the United States. The songs are mostly campaign jingles.

Carner entered the show in the Children’s Theater of Maine’s playwriting contest and won. The theater group produced the show in 1992.

A couple years later, he wrote a musical called “What a Cat!,” another children’s theater production. That one was about a cat, who also speaks English, who rises to the top of a pet toy company. It was the first time the children’s theater presented a work by a young playwright outside of the playwriting contest.

(The Children’s Theatre of Maine merged with the Children’s Museum of Maine in 2008, and the combined entity is known as the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.)

Carner graduated from Waynflete School in Portland in 1997, then went to Yale University, where he developed his own major: music, verse, drama. He then got a master’s degree from New York University’s graduate musical theater writing program, where he met Gregor.

Within a year after graduating from NYU, they had won the Richard Rodgers Award for “Unlock’d.” The show has was produced at theater festivals and workshops, then had an off-Broadway run in New York in 2013. It played in Houston in 2018.

The pair has written four other shows together, which have been put on at theaters all over the country and as far away as Australia. “Toast” is a show set in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. “Island Song” is the story of contemporary New Yorkers living out a “twisted love affair” with the city. The latter has been licensed, meaning theater groups and schools can pay for the right to put it on.

Carner, with Gregor, also writes stand-alone songs that have been included in performances by singers and Broadway performers, and he teaches theater at Temple University in Philadelphia. Besides getting royalties for their shows and songs, Carner and Gregor also sell sheet music of their work.

Though Carner focuses on the lyrics and stories and Gregor on the music, Carner says the division of labor is not that strict, and they both have input on the overall work. Carner says he and Gregor work well together because of their different tastes and musical backgrounds. Gregor, who grew up in New Jersey, is versed in baroque but is interested in contemporary pop and modern musicals, too. Carner’s passions are musical theater and opera from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Between the two of us, we cover about 400 years of music,” Carner said.

TESTING IT OUT

Carner says that after revisions, including some being tested out in the USM production, “Unlock’d” will hopefully make it to a commercial run in New York City. It was previously produced in New York, but by a non-profit theater company.

The student production at USM is a collaboration between the school of music and the theater department. Carner was in Gorham in late January to work with students during rehearsals. Sara Valentine, a USM theater professor who is directing the show, said students are excited to work with the show’s writer. That’s something that doesn’t happen all the time.

They’re also being challenged, as the music is a complex mix of classical and pop.

“You have some moments that are like arias from Mozart, then you have others that are from a pop opera,” said Valentine. “It challenges their range.”

The show is set in a fictional time and place based on 18th-century England. Carner calls the setting “back then-ish and across-the-pond-ish.” It’s based on Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem “The Rape of the Lock,” written in the early 1700s about a suitor who steals a lock of hair from a young woman. The musical focuses on Clarissa, a young upper-class woman living in the shadow of her bombshell stepsister, Belinda. With fairies and gnomes about, Clarissa hopes to marry off her stepsister so she can win a suitor for herself and improve her lot in life.

“It’s a story about how everything one does has the possibility of changing your life,” said Carner.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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