(WM) The Pulse tragedy in 2016 had an effect on every aspect of life in Orlando — socially, politically, spiritually — and for many, including Donald Rupe, it had a profound effect artistically.
Rupe, who is the Director of Theatre at Central Florida Community Arts, couldn’t get the idea of a musical surrounding Orlando, this tragedy that impacted the entire community and the way that community responded out of his head. That is how the award-winning show “From Here” was born.
“It was a difficult thing to do and a lot of people were skeptical about it, but what makes it okay is that I’m not trying to tell anyone’s story but my own,” Rupe says. “I try really hard not to talk about any specific people who were at Pulse that night. I try not to steal anyone else’s story out of respect and because it is not my story to tell.”
“From Here,” the story of a gay man named Daniel navigating life, relationships and the aftermath of Pulse — which Rupe wrote and directed, made its debut at Orlando International Fringe Festival in May 2019. After its positive showing at the popular festival, he knew he had something special. Rupe decided to expand “From Here” from its Fringe-friendly 60-minute runtime into a full-length musical to play at Central Florida Community Arts.
Rupe added scenes and music, including eight new songs, doubling the show’s runtime. He also added new characters and expanded the roles of existing ones, such as the mother.
“One of the problems with the original version is that I didn’t have enough time to really develop the mother character, so she kind of came off two dimensional and mean in the first version,” Rupe says. “I tried to give her a little more development and try to show her side of the story a little.”
Rupe says that when it came to writing the songs for both the Fringe version and the current version of the production, that part of it came naturally for him. Some songs only took 15 minutes for him to write; however, orchestrating the music was another story. Rupe enlisted local music director Jason Bailey to help him with that.
“I need a specific kind of person [when working on a musical] and Jason is that kind of person,” Rupe says. “He is patient with me. I might change my mind about something 4,000 times and he is always like, ‘Oh, okay yeah, we just worked on that for 40 minutes and now you want to cut it? Okay that’s fine.’”
Coming up with the songs for both versions of the show, Bailey says the process was always the same; Rupe would send him a recording of the song and he would figure out chord structure in the melody. He says he would try out different genres until they agreed on the best one and then they would find a hook for the song.
“It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s not always easy to tell what he is wanting from the song because it’s just a melody line and you can do all sorts of things with it, so it’s a lot of fun to hear a melody line and then think, ‘Okay how does that do? Does it sound like it’s a driving beat? Does it sound like it’s a more relaxed beat?’” Bailey says.
Bailey says he’s excited for the new songs they have created in the updated version of the show and to see what people think about them.
“We have a lot of good songs for this next one, some good what we call ‘torch songs,’ which are good powerful, emotional songs that are going to make people feel.” Bailey says. “And we are writing more fun and light songs.”
Returning for the full-length production is lead actor Blake Aburn, who plays Daniel.
“[Daniel] is a character I originated, so I’m excited to dive back into it,” Aburn says. “There have been changes to the script, it has been extended a bit, so it’s nice to be able to get a different side of Daniel that you didn’t see the first time.”
Aburn says he’s looking forward to taking the stage with the cast and crew again after growing so close with them during the show’s Fringe run.
“This is so special to me because my best friend wrote it. I felt like I was a huge part of the process of writing things and bouncing ideas off and it was really cool to be a part of the process from the beginning to where it is now,” Aburn says.
The show has already received high praise from the local community. Bailey says he has talked to composers and music directors in town as well as people in Orlando who have seen and praised the show.
“People really enjoyed the show, they thought everything was really done well and thought that the topics, the Pulse moment, was done tastefully,” he says. “The feedback has been greatly positive. It has been nothing but strong support from the community so far. It will be interesting to see what happens now with a full show.”
Writing these new scenes and preparing for another run has Rupe thinking about the future of “From Here.” Despite the challenges of shopping a show around when it is not completely done, Rupe has hope he will see it in cities around the country, including New York.
“As much as I’m loyal and I love Orlando, this show literally is a love letter to Orlando, I do want to see this show produced elsewhere,” Rupe says. “I am talking to some people about next steps. I think it’s a show where it’s a specific thing so many people have experienced, it is universal, and it says some important things.”
Bailey has also shared the same sentiments of wanting to see the show in other parts of the country.
“Honestly, I want this thing up in New York,” he says. “I think Donald has a great story, a great message, one that is just now getting to be told more in musical theatre as well.”
With this show, Rupe says he wanted to capture Orlando’s identity and how the city has changed, and he thinks it’s important that more art come out of Orlando, for more people to tell this story.
Overall, Rupe says he wants audiences to leave the theater feeling pride about living in Orlando and to understand how you can get through a tragedy — with people you love.
“From Here” plays Feb. 21-March 15 at Central Florida Arts Black Box Theatre. Tickets start at $15 on select nights, $18 for standard seating and $25 for premium seating. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit CFCArts.com/FromHere.