Hadley Johnson talks with cast members about the scene they are going to rehearse during “Afterthought,” an original musical by Johnson, a senior at Cape Elizabeth High School. Johnson has been working on the musical since she was in eighth grade. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Hadley Johnson sat at the piano on the stage at Cape Elizabeth High School, and the cast of “Afterthought” circled around. Johnson had just led everyone through a refresher of the choreography for a fast-paced song called “Just Be Here Today,” and now they reviewed the lyrics as she played the notes.

“Well done,” Johnson said when they finished. “I remember when we were first working on it –”

“And it was terrible,” one boy interjected, and Johnson laughed with the cast.

“No, I just remember that you were like, ‘Oh, will we get this down?’” Johnson said with a smile. “You are getting it.”

Everyone at this rehearsal, including Johnson, is a student here. But “Afterthought” isn’t a typical production for a high school theater department. Johnson wrote the entire musical – book, music, lyrics – and is also the director and one of the lead characters. She started working on this project in middle school and is now a senior.

“Because I’m a high schooler who wrote it, people might be thinking it’s mainly for teenagers or for high schoolers,” Johnson, 17, said. “And I think it definitely speaks to that audience, but I’m hoping it reaches parents or people who’ve ever been in a relationship or people who have pursued the arts. My hope is that it resonates with a lot of people.”


“Afterthought” begins with two friends who are 13 years old, the age Johnson and her neighbor were when they started working on the musical. The timeline jumps a few years until the characters are 18 years old and meet again in New York City. Johnson and her neighbor considered multiple plots, including one that involved an undercover CIA agent, but the final version is more personal. The characters take their first steps toward their respective dreams on the stage and in the law profession, and they also reckon with the feelings between them as they reconnect.

“I realized that I really just wanted to focus on the relationships,” Johnson said. “And less is more in that sense.”


Johnson grew up in a musical family. She wasn’t in kindergarten yet when she had her first role as one of the unnamed orphans in a production of “Annie.” By the time she got to middle school, she played both violin and trumpet. She found a friend with similar passions in her neighbor Eliza Green. The two became close in fifth grade when they decided to team up for a performance of the song “Naughty” from the musical “Matilda” at their school’s variety show.

The girls were on a walk together during the summer before eighth grade when they first talked about writing a musical themselves.

“We thought, what a better thing to write it on than our own hopes and dreams?” Green said. “A big part of our friendship was dreaming about all the theater and arts stuff we could accomplish.”


Eliza Green, 17, looks at the script during a scene rehearsal for “Afterthought.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Green and Johnson joined a songwriting group at the Cape Elizabeth library that continued on Zoom after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson loved writing songs, which inspired her to learn the piano and the guitar as well. She dove into the project and was in ninth grade when she first told the school’s theater director, Christine Marshall, about the musical.

Marshall has answered questions along the way and facilitated theater time, but has otherwise taken a hands-off approach. It was Johnson, for example, who got a grant from the Cape Elizabeth Educational Foundation and solicited donations from boosters to fund a majority of the production.

“She’s ready to do it,” Marshall said. “She does not need somebody holding her hand through the process.”


Johnson spent the last two years learning the skills she knew she needed for “Afterthought.” Among the professionals who helped her along the way was Jimmy Dority, who teaches at the Maine Academy of Modern Music, on songwriting and piano.

He said he was “dumbfounded” when he learned about her musical (“Not every student comes in with an entire musical ready to be worked on,” he said with a laugh) but worked to develop what he described as her natural ability for arranging music. He eventually agreed to be the pit orchestra director for “Afterthought.” The nine members are a mix of professional and student musicians.


Dority said he remembers how he felt when adults met his teenage ideas with condescension or smugness that felt like “a little pat on the head.” He said he feels strongly that young artists like Johnson should be taken seriously.

“One of the most effective elements of the musical as a whole is that it’s batting away that pat on the head and taking a strong stance in saying, ‘The work that I’m doing is important, regardless of whether you know it or not. It’s not an afterthought. It’s not merely a whim,'” he said. “That’s a huge theme of the whole thing, and it’s true for the characters themselves, and it’s true for Hadley.”

When Johnson approached Maria Tzianabos about choreographing the musical, her dance teacher told her they should create the steps together. “I wanted it to be hers,” Tzianabos said.

Hadley Johnson demonstrates the dance for actors on stage during a scene at a rehearsal of “Afterthought.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When it was time to teach the choreography to the cast, Tzianabos said she was impressed by the poise Johnson showed in front of her peers.

“Hadley has a maturity about her,” said Tzianabos, who is on the dance faculty at the University of Southern Maine. “You’re in high school and you’re ordering all your friends around and that’s weird, but she does it with grace, and she does it in a way that doesn’t put people on defense. She does it in a way that took me years to learn.”



Green said she is proud of Johnson for bringing their idea from years ago to fruition. The two friends will play the lead characters at two of four shows.

“Hadley is really the heart of this show, and I’m so excited for her to get to see this happen, and I’m so excited that I’ve gotten to play a role in making that happen,” Green said.

“Afterthought” is a coming-of-age story written by someone who was coming of age at the time. Johnson, whose character is pursuing a career on stage, said this experience has only increased her own desire to work in music and theater in some form, and she will be applying to colleges where she can continue building the skills she has learned while working on her musical. It is fitting, then, that the “Afterthought” is also about chasing dreams.

“This is not some afterthought/ I don’t want to look back at this/ Thinking ’bout how I could have lived/ No, this is not some afterthought,” the title song goes.

Actors on stage listen as Hadley Johnson, second from left, the creator and director, gives them directions during a rehearsal of “Afterthought” at Cape Elizabeth High School. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Johnson said she is overwhelmed with gratitude to the people who helped her along the way, including her mom. Ginger Browne Johnson was herself a performer before she became a veterinarian, and she said watching her daughter bring “Afterthought” to life has reassured her that she will find her own path in a challenging field.

“She’s done every aspect of it and loved every aspect of it,” her mom said. “I know there is a place for her in that world.”

The people who have supported Johnson spoke about her work with pride. Marshall said she visited a recent rehearsal and another student approached her while everyone was packing up to leave.

“She said, ‘I’ve been working on a play,'” Marshall said. “And I thought to myself, Hadley hasn’t even opened her show yet, and she is inspiring other young artists.”

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