From the July 2021 Desktop News | Most know Billy Griffin for his time as the lead singer of the legendary Motown group The Miracles, following the footsteps of Smokey Robinson in 1972. Griffin made unmistakable hits like “Love Machine” with the group before embarking on his solo career. But Griffin wanted the story of his illustrious career to be told in a different way, and in Seth Panitch, professor and head of acting programs at The University of Alabama, Griffin found the right match to help him tell it.
When a friend of Griffin stumbled upon “Separate but Equal,” an off-Broadway play about segregation and basketball in Alabama written and directed by Panitch, Griffin approached Panitch to write a musical based on the star’s life. After the success of “Separate But Equal,” and receiving a National Endowment for the Arts grant with Dominic Yeager, associate chair of theatre at UA, Panitch did just that.
In 2019, he began creating “Shooting Star,” a play that follows Griffin’s rise to Motown fame. Panitch sifted through Griffin’s experiences and discography for something more than a biography—what he found was a story that he thought could resonate with all artists.
“What I pitched to Billy was using his experiences and his most famous songs as an inspiration piece, using his experience as inspiration for a universal story about artists and how fame can cloud the intention of why we started,” Panitch said. “That’s what the play is—how to find your way back to that exciting seed that started you in this incredibly difficult journey in the first place, because that’s what will ultimately get you through the battle in any career in art, that elemental passion at a young age.”
The production of the play did not go entirely by plan, with several postponements and a filmed workshop where actors had to stay six feet apart and could not perform for a crowd due to the pandemic.
“It was supposed to happen the summer when COVID first hit—we were going to take it straight to New York, and I had already done a reading with students here,” Panitch said. “COVID cancelled us once and then again this summer, so fingers crossed on the third strike.”
Nevertheless, that workshop, with choreography by Alvon Reed and music direction by Henry Lewers, sent the play to the next level at 59E59 Theaters in New York when Panitch sent them the recording of it, and “Shooting Star” is now set to have a full off-Broadway production in September 2022. Until then, Panitch plans to hold another workshop of the play to perfect the music with students and Greg Pliska, a musician and composer who adapted Griffin’s music for the play.
Student involvement has been a key part of the production of “Shooting Star,” as it is one of many installments of the Bridge Project—a series of off-Broadway plays and feature films which provide UA seniors, final-year MFA students, or graduates with a connection into the theatre and film industry. Panitch started the project in 2006, and has directed and written countless plays and films as a part of the project since, including “Separate but Equal” and his most recent film “The Coming,” which is currently in production.
“Nearly all of our students who have gone on to accomplish great things have partaken in this program,” Panitch said. “The biggest success of all of those pieces are the horizons that were expanded in the students who got to participate in them.”
For “Shooting Star,” recent graduate Christian Hatcher played Griffin in readings and the workshop, and senior Tristan Hallman was the cinematographer for the filmed version of the workshop that was sent to 59E59 Theaters, among others. When they begin casting, Panitch hopes to look at as many students for the roles as they can.
When the play finally hits the stage in 2022, Panitch hopes that everyone will be able to connect with the story.
“It’s easy to forget the love and passion that we started with,” Panitch said. “But this is a story about rediscovering our initial love for anything that we do, and it’s my hope that for everyone in the audience, this will be able to bring them back to why they do what they do and why they love it.”