Dennis Manning was just a teen when he first began to learn the guitar. The talented musician was soon playing the folk songs sung at mass in the Catholic school in his small Pennsylvania hometown, along with the popular music of Bob Dylan, John Denver and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Just a few years later, he finished his first song, “Simple Words,” a ballad performed at his sister’s wedding — “I just wrote it down,” Manning recalled — and he’s been composing ever since.
Nearly four decades later, many of Manning’s favorite tunes will be featured in a new musical, “Now & Then,” receiving its world premiere next week in Wilton Manors.
Manning happened to be in the audience last spring at one of local theater producer and playwright Ronnie Larsen’s shows when the topic of Manning’s music came up in a conversation before the curtain.
“I had never considered writing a musical before,” said Larsen, creator of the Off Broadway hit, “Making Porn,” and producer of an LGBT play series at the Abyss Stage and Foundry Studio. “I can barely sing in the shower, but I just knew right then that I wanted to hear Dennis’ music.”
Manning had long imagined a career in music, but like many aspiring musicians, made ends meet with consulting and management contracts in between recording sessions and meetings with record label executives.
“I had to get jobs. I worked in restaurants and eventually got a master’s degree in training,” he explained, noting he and his husband moved to South Florida 11 years ago, “and then all of a sudden you’re in your fifties and meet Ronnie Larsen, who wants to hear your music.”
The two spent hours together over several weeks going through Manning’s songs. Fifty songs were narrowed down to 25 and then 20 before they realized there might be the makings of a musical.
“Ronnie kept asking about the stories behind the songs,” said Manning, who admitted most were inspired by his own life and 27-year relationship with his husband. “Then, one night in July, he came back with the script for ‘Now & Then’”
Larsen conceived a love story, tracing the relationship of two men—one a musician—over 40 years.
“It’s not the story of Dennis Manning,” the composer insisted. “Who would want to see that? I’m not that interesting, but if you know me, you might recognize some of the stories.”
Larsen added, “Dennis draws on those shared experiences that nearly every couple encounter over the course of a long relationship, whether they’re straight or gay or whatever. It’s a real love story.”
Manning warned, “These aren’t your typical Broadway show tunes, not Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim, but if you look at theater today, ‘Hamilton’ isn’t either,” noting the emphasis on acoustic guitar pop-influenced rhythms throughout.
For Manning, who also stars in the cast of six, the biggest thrill is finally hearing his music performed by others:
"Each time, I hear new things. It’s humbling to hear them [sung by someone else]. I’ve lived with some of the songs for so long, it’s such a gift to hear them from a new perspective.”
“Now & Then” by Dennis Manning and Ronnie Larsen will receive its world premiere Sept. 6 – 30 at the Foundry at the Abyss Theatre, 1140 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 – 50 at NowAndThenMusical.com.