Of course, there was plenty of inspiration before that moment. She described her family as naturally creative and musical lovers. She said Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of Hamilton and In the Heights, was a particular inspiration.
The moment in the parking lot, though, was a turning point. “We just decided we were going to do it,” Katy said. She was in the eighth grade at the time. “We went out to eat one night and started to write the first song on a napkin. From there, we would work on it on car trips to Nashville or whenever we could. We had a little notebook where we wrote everything.”
They made a rule: there always had to be at least two people working on the musical at a time. “We didn’t want it to turn into a solo project,” Zoe said. She explained that even though their dad, an accomplished musician, wrote most of the melodies for the score on his own, “as far as lyrics and dialogue, there always had to be two of us working on it so that it was fully collaborative.”
The show’s story takes place in Cosmopolis, specifically during an annual convention called Sidecon for sidekicks. Attendees can train to be sidekicks and then hopefully discover their super abilities and earn their sidekick names. Suffice it to say, the six main characters, who all have their own struggles, have to unexpectedly step up and prove themselves in challenging ways.
“There’s a theme of good versus evil, and the balance in between, but it’s also about standing up and finding your place in the world and your strength, even when other people don’t believe in you,” Katy said.
She acknowledged that the experiences she and her sister have had in battling stereotypes helped shape the show’s theme. “We wanted it to be specifically something for our generation, to portray struggles that many teenage girls face. It was important to show what it’s like to be a young girl and the expectations you have to meet. We wanted young people to have a musical that represented them.”
She noted that many superhero franchises usually have only one strong female character. They decided that their show would have a majority of female characters, and that those characters would be complex with a lot of depth.
The Challenges of Writing a Musical
Musicals have lots of moving parts—the story, the dialogue, the stage directions, the lyrics, and the music.
“I’ve written mostly short stories,” Katy said. “This is definitely a more complex plot than what I’ve done before. It’s also different from fiction in that you have to keep the audience’s attention for two-and-a-half hours. Everything has to be engaging, whether it’s the dialogue, the lyrics, or the music. In a musical, you either have to show it with the set, through the actions or the stage directions, or with the dialogue.”
“One of the hardest things is finding internal rhymes that have meaning,” Zoe added. For both, they got guidance from their dad, who had written songs before.
They described the process as challenging, not difficult. In fact, sometimes they’d get so excited talking about ideas, that they’d forget to write them down. Their dad provided structure and sometimes acted as a mediator.
Lyrics were definitely a unique challenge. “I expected lyrics to be like poetry,” Katy admitted. They discovered that rhythm matters so much more. “We would write something good and then realize that it didn’t fit with a melody quite right and have to change it. We thought very specifically about wording, just to make it fit in the song.”
Writing stage directions required thinking differently, too. “I always wanted to write stage directions like you would for a book, detailed and with whimsical language,” said Katy. “However, I learned they really just need to be straightforward.”
Katy said she thought Sidekicks would never be finished before she graduated Hutchison. She recalled that one of the show’s shorter songs took months to write. Plus, they were under no deadline, and they fit the work in as they could.
Unfortunately, their dad got sick, and very quickly it became quite serious. He was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. At that point, the show became a priority. They worked as much as they could, finishing songs, polishing lyrics and dialogue, and enlisting the help of fellow Hutchison staff members, including Anne Marie Caskey ’80, Leiza Collins, and Tracey Zerwig Ford.
Before long it was decided that Hutchison would mount the musical for its fall 2019 production. This put an actual deadline in place. As the script was finalized, they gathered fine arts faculty, Hutchison students and recent alumnae, and friends to do a readthrough of the show. Katy said this was one of the most exciting moments because it brought the show to life. Previously, it had only existed in their imaginations. She said it was fascinating to hear other people bring their interpretations to the characters.
Since the show was an original idea and had never been produced before, one of the most important things to do was to record all of the songs as a reference track. Leiza Collins, Hutchison’s middle and upper school music teacher, helped refine the music and create orchestrations. They then camped out at the Gilmore house to practice and record the songs.
On August 15, 2019, the second day of school, Barry Gilmore passed away. On August 25, faculty and staff of Hutchison and family and friends gathered in the Wiener Theater to celebrate his life with music and remembrances.
The memorial was a fitting way to honor Barry, but his true wish was for the Sidekicks show to go on—not just for his girls, but because it was important to him that all girls hear the message the play imparts. Auditions occurred, practices started, posters were made, and dates were set. Katy and Zoe would finally see all of their hard work come to fruition. Barry had inspired and collaborated with his daughters on a show that was all about finding one’s unique superpower.
“I hope people see that you’re never too young to make art,” Katy said. “Zoe and I are lucky that we had our dad pushing us on, because otherwise, we would have doubted ourselves or maybe never asked to have it performed at Hutchison.”
“My hope is that people focus on the musical itself and not so much on how it came to be,” Zoe said. “There’s a lot to be learned from this story.”