‘The Magnificent Seven’ musical showcases the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team

FLINT, Michigan — Getting to the Olympics is a lifelong dream for many athletes all over the globe, but it’s a rarity to actually achieve such a celebrated feat. “The Magnificent Seven,”  a musical written by book writer and lyricist Gordon Leary, focuses on the lives of seven U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team members during the 1996 Olympics.

After a three-year wait due to the pandemic, the musical is finally kicking off with a world premiere right here in Flint at the FIM Flint Repertory Theatre. “The Magnificent Seven” runs from Friday, March 31 through Sunday, April 16.

Directed by Catie Davis, music by Julia Meinwald, and choreography by Duane Lee Holland Jr., the uplifting production stars Bret Beaudry, Alex Finke, Emi Fishman, Beth Guest, Bryana Hall, Scott Anthony Joy, Amanda Kuo, Mary Paige Rieffel, Hana Slevin, Monica Spencer, and Phoebe Strole. 
Gordon Leary.
Book writer and lyricist Gordon Leary (them/they) grew up interested in many different kinds of art, ranging from visual art to playing the piano and viola. They wrote their first musical in high school and discovered a true love for the craft.

“Being able to tell stories, being able to explore people and their humanity, and being able to build communities with the work that we make is something that is pretty unique to musical theater and the kinds of musicals we create,” Leary says.

Music composer Julia Meinwald, grew up with two musician parents and learned early on how music could be a nourishing, rewarding part of life. “I studied academic music composition in undergraduate, but when I got to NYU’s graduate musical theater writing program, which is where I met Gordon, I really felt like I’d come home,” she says.
Julia Meinwald.
For the musical’s choreographer, Duane Lee Holland Jr., this project is truly a full-circle moment. Holland Jr. was a competitive gymnast from the age of seven until he was 19 years old. “I trained for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, so when I was told about this project, I was really honored,” he says. “To meet and work with Gordon, Julia, Catie and Jeremy, I’ve been able to have closure in my life, and it’s really been an amazing blessing.“

Holland Jr. went on to work as a backup dancer behind Chaka Khan and Kool & The Gang, before joining Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip-hop theater dance company. He was also in the original cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway. 

“I thought I was too short to do Broadway,” he laughs. “I just wanted to dance in videos behind hip hop and R&B artists, but I was very blessed to be around a very rich lineage of artists, and they pulled me into this world, and I have not left,” he says. 
Duane Lee Holland Jr.
Leary says having Holland Jr. on the team has proven very helpful for research purposes. “It’s been invaluable to have Duane be a part of this process because of all the knowledge and history that he brings to it,” they say. “Having competed and trained alongside so many of the actual athletes that we’re portraying here, it’s been an amazing learning process for us to see the things we got right, and things we can further hone.”

The musical focuses on the inner thoughts of the seven women gymnasts, the pressures they’re under, and the bonds they form throughout the experience. The premise is an inspiring one, especially for Leary, who vividly remembers watching the Olympics at the age of 14. 

“I was just a little bit younger than the youngest members on the team,” they said. “I remember being in awe of them as athletes, as a team, and interested in their stories. The stakes are so high at the Olympics, and the drama that happened at the Olympics was so powerful that it felt like it ‘sang to me’ before I even really understood what that meant.”

20 years later, Leary began writing the production, focused on the pivotal nineties victory. “The main thing that we explore is their inner lives during that competition, “Leary says, “what it means to be amazingly good at something, but hear a ticking clock that you’re about to age out of it or to have the pressure of the whole world watching you as you’re growing up. Friendships, rivalries, all of those things that were happening in their heads behind the scenes, that is what we’re exploring in the show.”

Although most of us have not experienced the Olympics from an elite-level athletic standpoint, Meinwald says the show’s themes remain universal. “I think most people can all relate to feeling like they’re under very intense pressure,” she says, “whether that’s the pressure they put on themselves, or from their family or friends, or a larger circle around them. The show is a nice meditation on natural human ways to react to that pressure.”

“We hope that some audience members will have some memory of these games, and the image of Kerri Strug sticking the landing on an injured ankle, and winning the team gold,” Leary says. “We hope that the story that we are telling brings some perspective to that, and makes people reconsider how they saw these athletes, and think about the humanity behind these seven women and all elite level athletes, especially young athletes.”

The inspirational tale is likely to stir up emotion, says Holland Jr. “It takes you on a journey,” he says. “I will be surprised if people leave here with a dry eye.”

For Leary, they hope the musical can uplift audiences the same way watching the 1996 Olympics on television inspired them. “Everybody felt like they were a part of that 1996 team when they were watching it,” they said, “and we hope we can recreate that kind of magic, belonging, and camaraderie with our audience as well.”

‘The Magnificent Seven” runs from March 31-April 16. Tickets are available online, at the FIM Ticket Center box offices at FIM Whiting Auditorium and FIM Capitol Theatre, or by calling 810-237-7333.
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.