People often think he’s years younger than he is. He looks young, but 37-year-old Brookfield resident Jon Steinhagen has been actively involved in musical theater for over two decades. His busy career has brought many exciting theatrical experiences to local audiences since he was a high school kid.
And soon Jon will be playing the title role of early silent film director Mack Sennett in Circle Theatre’s production of “Mack and Mabel.” Simultaneously, the latest musical that he’s composed and written, “The Teapot Scandal of 1923,” will be enjoying its world premiere at Porchlight Theatre in the Theatre Building on Chicago’s North Side.
Steinhagen got his start in showbiz at age 16 while he was a student at Fenwick High School. Karen Skinner, one of the founders of Circle Theatre, hired him to serve as musical director for the fledgling company’s production of “Pippin.” Circle was mounting their shows in a Forest Park church basement in those days.
“Jon was only 16 years old,” Skinner recalls, “but he was so remarkably self-possessed and conducted himself with such utter professionalism, we all had to constantly remind ourselves he was just a high school kid. His talent was so outstanding. That show was the beginning of a really long and fruitful relationship between Jon Steinhagen and Circle Theatre. It’s thrilling for me to think I had a tiny role in launching Jon into musical theater. He’s an amazing and gifted individual.”
Jon, who began taking piano lessons at age 7, had already totally immersed himself in Broadway scores by the time he was a freshman at Fenwick. On his own he’d studied cast albums of warhorse musicals like “Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” as well as the works of Cole Porter and the other great American musical theater composers.
“I learned from the masters,” Steinhagen says. “Some rubbed off on me more than others.”
In the late 1980s, while Steinhagen was a student at DePaul University, I myself was writing plays-but never music. One of these shows, based upon the life of a colorful actress, Grace Hayward, whose company performed at Oak Park’s opera house, circa 1910, was called “Kick Up Your Heels”; 19-year-old Jon Steinhagen composed all the music and wrote the lyrics.
But at DePaul University, Jon was frustrated taking the basic musical theory classes and being steered toward classical composition.
“I was writing stuff for which I had no ear,” he admits. “Now it’s different for music students. But not so long ago anyone who wanted to write for musical theater was not encouraged or nurtured in traditional music departments.”
Steinhagen ended up getting a degree in English.
Yet he continued creating his own shows, performing sometimes, often serving as musical director for other productions. Actress and singer Sara Minton who’s worked with him several times, remembers him first as musical director of Pegasus Players’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”
“Jon was always fascinating. He’s so witty and humble, always a gentleman. He’s a brilliant lyricist, composer, pianist, and actor,” says Minton. “He has a wide array of interests. He has a number of antique gramophones and Victrolas, plus a huge collection of 1920s sheet music.”
Steinhagen’s career the last 15 years is notable for non-stop creative activity resulting in a tremendous amount of produced material. He admits to being driven.
“Very rarely do I slow down or allow the grass to grow under my feet,” he says.
Steinhagen’s shows are remarkably diverse, but are often set in earlier eras. “Nobody Likes Retsina,” for which he wrote the lyrics for Philip Seward’s music, was about love, forgiveness and the Greek Mafia of the early 1930s. “Emma & Company,” for which Steinhagen both composed the music and wrote the lyrics, was based on the “Emma McChesney” stories by Edna Ferber.
That musical focused on an early 20th century divorced mother who was a traveling salesman. Critics called the show “lively,” “charming” and “engrossing” when it played in New York City. “The Tell-Tale Heart” was a one-man, one-act opera based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting short story.
Now, 10 shows later, Steinhagen’s latest production is enjoying its world premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago. Rotating in grand company with Stephen Sondheim’s incendiary musical “Assassins,” three nights a week for each, Jon’s new musical is a hilarious look at politics set on the vaudeville stage of the Charleston era. “The Teapot Scandal of 1923” is based upon the notorious administration of Republican President Warren G. Harding.
Due to the scandals in his administration, our 29th president is often considered one of our least successful presidents. He himself was not involved in the secret leasing of oil fields located on public land in Wyoming (so named because of a domed rock formation that resembled a giant teapot) to private oil companies. But among Harding’s self-serving, corrupt cabinet there was much bribery to grease the wheels to make this happen. Harding complained, “I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, my God-damned friends-they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.”
The Teapot Dome Scandal was the first exposed incident of government corruption in the early 20th century. And there were other problems aplenty. Harding reportedly conducted one of several extramarital affairs in a closet adjacent to the Oval Office and fathered a “love child.” Both the political corruption and the presidential infidelities are exposed in Steinhagen’s show.
Harding was also notorious for his verbal gaffes. His postwar political campaign used the slogan “Return to Normalcy” (rather than the correct term-normality). Poet E.E. Cummings once said Harding was the only person “who could write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors.”
There were also persistent rumors that Harding had a few African American ancestors. The Harding presidency, though distant in time, was ripe for the picking for a writer and composer like Steinhagen.
He has created an assortment of zany characters in the style of the “George White Scandals,” a long-running string of popular Ziegfeld Follies type vaudeville revues that flourished during the Roaring ’20s. Audiences will no doubt find this blend of Jazz Age razzmatazz and political satire irresistible. There’s everything in this show from magic acts to a bevy of flapper showgirls. Cast members feel that audiences will relish the surprisingly relevant depiction of moral bankruptcy and impropriety in high places.
In the Porchlight production Brandon Dahlquist plays President Warren Harding. The imperious, domineering First Lady, Florence Harding, is portrayed by Elizabeth Haley.
Following a concert version of his show at the Mercury Theatre last year, with the cast performing on stools with music stands in front of them, Steinhagen did some fine-tuning and rearranging to arrive at the current work now enjoying its premiere run. He also cut the intermission.
“The score for ‘Teapot’ is reminiscent of composers Jerome Kern and early George Gershwin,” Steinhagen explains. “I had great fun with this show, and now that it’s opening at the Theatre Building, I don’t have to do anything but show up and laugh.”
Walter J. Stearns, artistic director of Porchlight Theatre, says, “What people may not realize is that his rapier wit and sensitive soul influence every one of his creative facilities. His plays and musicals are smart and heartfelt. He reminds me of the smartest kid in class-always ready with the correct answer, but modestly keeping it to himself. If you ask him, he’ll share profound and intense ideas.”
Besides his composing, Steinhagen has received rave reviews for his fine performances, too. In Circle Theatre’s “Mystery of Edwin Drood” several seasons ago he was singled out by critics for his superior comedic timing, his articulation, and even his hilarious ad-libs. Last year he shone in Circle’s production of the film noir musical about the dirty world of tabloid journalism in the 1950s, “Sweet Smell of Success.” Jon played a nasty, powerful columnist originally portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film version.
“It was a very odious character,” Jon admits, “and it took so much energy to be so constantly on the edge, so cynical and corroded.”
Circle director Kevin Bellie will soon feature Steinhagen in one of the title roles of the upcoming production of “Mack & Mabel.” This Jerry Herman show depicts the love affair in the between innovative silent comedy director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, a Brooklyn waitress turned movie star comedienne. The production opens Feb. 28.
“This role is wonderful,” says Steinhagen, “but I’ll admit it’s quite a challenge. On one hand he’s narrating the story. Mack Sennett is this creative genius, way ahead of his time, always flying by the seat of his pants. He’s romantically involved with Mabel yet he can’t show or express his feelings. The character has to be charming, yet reserved. The duality is a challenge, to say the least.”
Steinhagen always seems to have a lot on his plate creatively. This month will definitely be an exciting time to not only watch him performing locally in a starring role but to also experience the thrill of a hilarious original musical he’s just launched in the city.