Sam August is about to graduate from college and he has a big dream. He has found an old, rundown theater in Plymouth, Massachusetts that is available for rent where he, assisted by some of his college friends, could produce and direct five musicals — Cabaret, Funny Girl, Anything Goes, Company and The Fantasticks — over the summer before taking his talents to Broadway. What better place could there be to spend the summer of America’s Bicentennial celebration?
So Sam heads to Plymouth in his 1969 Mustang, determined to convince Dr. Andrew Barrows, whose family has owned the Priscilla Beach Theater for more than a century, to rent the property to him. In addition to being quite old, wealthy, and extremely influential in Plymouth, Barrows has a very young wife, Lizzie, who is intent upon entering into her own arrangement with Sam. Despite her husband’s misgivings about Sam and his prospects for success, Lizzie attempts to charm Sam with a $50,000 grant from the Barrows Foundation. Even at the tender age of twenty-one, Sam knows that there are many strings attached to the money.
Undaunted, Sam cajoles everyone he can think of into investing and manages to scrape together the financial backing he needs. However, the long-abandoned theater needs major renovations, including the relocation of a colony of rabid raccoons who have take up residence there. There are also local officials, including unscrupulous building inspectors, who want to be enriched.
Sam is instantly drawn to the beautiful Veronica Chapman who is working as a clerk at the local motel, but Veronica is set on leaving Plymouth in the fall to begin her studies at Boston University. She will be the first person in her family to earn a college degree and has no interest in falling for a guy who will only be around for the summer. Besides, her family has a complicated history with the Barrows and there is very bad blood between Veronica and Lizzie. But Sam can be quite charming and persuasive . . .
Is Sam up for all the challenges he will encounter as he works to restore the theater, manage a temperamental cast, crew and orchestra, find a publicist, and draw in audiences?
Debut novelist Mitchell Maxwell is new to the literary scene, but not the theater. Like his protagonist and his pals, Maxwell is a graduate of Tufts University who has spent thirty-five years in the entertainment industry, producing and directing seven Broadway shows, including Stomp!, the revival of Damn Yankees, the revival of Bells Are Ringing and Dinner with Friends. He also developed Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and has been involved in over thirty off-Broadway productions. He owned and operated three off-Broadway theaters, so he has lived the subject matter he tackles in Little Did I Know.
Sam August is young, energetic, and charismatic. Maxwell deftly pulls his readers into Sam’s corner at the outset, making his raw determination to succeed infectiously powerful. Sam’s unflailing dedication to his dream establishes the books pace and keeps the action fast-paced until the very end. Maxwell surrounds Sam with an intriguing cast of local characters with secret histories, as well as an eclectic group of college friends with their own issues, and recruited cast members who bring their own baggage — literal and metaphoric — with them to Plymouth.
The resurrection of a theater is a major undertaking, and Maxwell infuses Sam’s journey with enough complications to keep readers wondering whether his story will have a happy ending. Some of the challenges Sam faces are heart-wrenching, including the story of Ellie, the choreographer, who is talented, beautiful, and clearly insecure as evidenced by her determination to spend her time off with a dangerous crowd. Others are laugh-out-loud funny, including the group’s encounter with a group of angry raccoons who do not appreciate the charms of their new cohabitants.
Maxwell conveys the sensibilities of the time period, the summer of 1976, convincingly, as he explores the manner in which his characters relate to each other, party and work together, and explore both their budding sexuality and newly-earned independence. The narrative is full of cultural references that resonate with readers who remember not just the seemingly endless Bicentennial hype, but also Tom Seaver and the championship 1969 New York Mets, Joe Di Maggio, and a host of other American icons. For those too young to remember the summer when we were poised in our bell bottoms on the brink of a brief foray into disco, Maxwell offers a knowing glimpse into what it was like to be young, full of seemingly endless energy, and eager to chart your own destiny in the days before cell phones and the Internet.
Little Did I Know is a fresh and unique take on an age-old theme: The fulfillment of a dream is really about the journey, not the destination. As Sam and his companions endeavor to become full-fledged artists and pack the house, valuable life lessons are learned, friendships are tested, and romance blooms, but whether it will last remains a mystery. By the time the summer is drawing to a close, Sam observes that it has been a memorable “first act.” For Maxwell, Little Did I Know is also a remarkable “first act” and I hope that he follows the intermission with a second act novel that is as charming, entertaining, and endearing as his first effort.
Scavenger Hunt / Excerpt
JB, one of my closet friends and in many ways my theatrical muse, sat across from me watching the evening fade into daylight. She had the look of a lost little girl searching for something to break away from the melancholy of the night’s last curtain call, or somehow find a way to never let it go.
JB was an ugly duckling on the verge of discovering that she truly was a swan. She had made these shows happen. Tirelessly and unselfishly, she has urged us all to take up the challenge and sing out.
To continue reading the excerpt, visit Curling Up by the Fire tomorrow, Wednesday, October 12, 2011!