Sometimes timing is everything in life. Just ask Tony Stimac—a renowned dramatist, director, theatre founder, and world traveler. Stimac wrote an original musical, “Mrs. WWII,” in 1993 in San Diego in honor of their own local USO. Though the production fell through, it still found its debut in New York at Musical Theatre Works under the title, “Girl of My Dreams.”
Upon moving to Wilmington, NC, in September of 2015—to be closer to his daughter who just had his sixth grandchild—Stimac and his wife attended a dance at Wilmington’s Hannah Block Historic USO and Community Arts Center. They had no idea the USO was about to celebrate 75 years. “There was a live band and you could feel the history of the building come to life,” Stimac notes. He met Susan Habas, executive director of Thalian Association—which oversees the USO for the city—along with local historian Wilbur Jones. Jones told Stimac about the legacy of Hannah Block—who often performed piano for troops during wartime America, became a charter member for the World War II Wilmington Homefront Heritage Coalition, served on the board for Wilmington’s USO, and even became the first woman elected to Wilmington’s City Council. Stimac knew his twentysomething-year musical would be a hit in celebrating the anniversary of the Hannah Block Historic USO.
“Susan and Wilbur asked to read [the show] and both loved it,” Stimac tells. “Wilbur was a fountain of historical information, which made the adaptation relatively easy. He was a stickler for details and the show is better for it.”
“Mrs. WWII Wilmington” opens next week just in time for Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11! encore interviewed Stimac about the show.
encore (e): What’s the basic premise of “Mrs. WWII Wilmington: We Fell in Love at the USO”?
Tony Stimac (TS): The show is a love triangle between two G.I.’s and a young Broadway starlet who joins a USO tour to somehow be near the man she loves. It also tells the story of a time when America was at her best. Everyone was pulling together and no sacrifice was too great for our soldiers. The USO contributions were extraordinary, and Hannah Block played a big part in serving the troops during that period.
e: Have you served in the military before? How did that influence the writing of the show?
TS: I did not; I had health issues, but my father served in the US Army. My cousin was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in the Air Force, and my daughter and her husband both served in the the Air Force as fighter pilots. I was always moved by the spirit of sacrifice and courage of the nation during that time. The accomplishment of retooling America is one of the greatest feats in history.
e: How did you choose the music to coalesce with the plot? It’s not originally scored, correct?
TS: The show did have a completely original score in its first incarnation. Wilbur and Susan asked if I could interpolate several songs of the period. With the original composer’s permission, I did. Perhaps because of the romance of the time, it was amazing how well the songs fit into the storyline. We added seven songs of the period.
e: What’s a good example in the show of a song that really elevates the plot?
TS: All of the songs in the show elevate the plot. “We’ve Been Together Too Long” starts the plot off with a soldier being dumped by his girl back home. “I’ll Be Seeing You” is the moment the protagonist and his best friend fall in love with the starlet. “What Can I Do For My Country,” sung by Hannah Block, encapsulates the spirit of sacrifice that swept the country at the time. Finally, “I’ll Be Waiting” was certainly the lot of every wife, mother and girlfriend who had a man overseas.
e: Has it been difficult for you to switch gears from writer to director? Or did you have people in mind locally to act in it?
TS: It was not difficult at all to switch and made many things easier. The director could help the author and vice versa. I saw the Wilmington Theatre Awards last January and found the whole cast. As it turned out, some of them were not available, but I knew the talent was here.
[Ed. note: The cast consists of Chris Connor (Vinnie), Jeff Phillips (Wiley) and Beth Swindell (Millie), along with newcomers at the heart of the love story, Johanna Winkel (Frances) and Marlon Ramos (Vinnie).]
e: Is there a particular character you connect with more than others?
TS: Not really. Bob and Vinnie are two totally different individuals and types. They are composites of boys I grew up with. I like and understand them both; although, they could not be further apart.
e: Tell us a little about your background and history in theatre. I understand you lived in China and worked on musical theatre there.
TS: From 2007 until 2014, I lived in China [and helped] the Chinese develop original Broadway-style Chinese musicals. I did three original Chinese musicals and am going back in January to do a fourth.
After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, I came back to the US and directed at many of America’s finest regional theatres. In the ‘70s I wrote and directed three musicals that were produced Off Broadway. The experience of creating those shows from scratch inspired me to found a a professional not for profit theatre company in New York City devoted to developing new musicals and new writers for the musical theatre. We had 22 rehearsal studios and a small back box theatre. We produced and developed 60 original musicals in 15 years, six of which went on to Broadway. The top people in the industry came to our theatre to mentor the young writers. Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, Gwen Verdon, Tom Jones, Kander and Ebb were only a few of the giants who participated. We also became NYU’s studio for musical theatre and we founded the Festival of New Musicals for the National Alliance of Musical Theatre which is now in it 29th year. I left MTW in 1995. I spent the next 10 years as artistic director of the Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack, New York.