Known for her wide array of work with country artists such as Reba McEntire and Janie Fricke, songwriter Shawna Harrington is expanding her repertoire of talents to include playwriting, as she unveils her musical “Mae” at the Nittany Theatre at the Barn.
The show is a long time coming, spawned from a brief moment in Harrington’s childhood.
“When I was about 10 or 11, my aunt came to visit us in Miami. We were all going swimming and she came out in a gold swimsuit, which made my older sister say, ‘Oo la la, look it’s Mae West,’ ” Harrington said. “I didn’t know who they were talking about at all, but I think that stuck with me all these years, about Mae West.”
Through the years, Harrington became more familiar with West’s life, seeing her here and there on television and in movies, but it wouldn’t be until more recently that she picked the prolific actress and American icon as the subject for a project.
“I was writing more or less songs just one at a time, and I really wasn’t into it all, and I was thinking, if only I could get into a project, because I could see I wasn’t going to stop writing. I ordered (West’s) autobiography and I read that first. Then all of a sudden, at 3 a.m. one night, I sat up in bed, and I had almost this whole song written. I got out of bed, went into my music room and that started the musical. After that, I didn’t get another song until another year,” Harrington said, laughing.
“That was the beginning of the music. Then, all of the sudden, I had 12 songs, but I hadn’t written the play yet. I had a listening party ... about 70 people came and they all just loved it, so then I went on and wrote the play.”
Then, Harrington said, one of the biggest challenges of the writing process arose when she started editing and changing the play.
“You finally get to the best after a long period of time. I took at least a year of re-writing,” she said.
The resulting product? A surprising and in-depth look at West’s life, from birth to death. However, Harrington is quick to point out audiences aren’t in for the Mae West they may think they know.
“People think she is the character she portrayed. ... She became known as being her characters, and people thought she was like that all the time,” Harrington said. “People think they know her — and I felt that way too, like I knew her — but no one knows anything about her, and that’s what I found out. She’s much different.”
Beyond the interesting new details audiences can expect to learn about the actress, writer, comedian and Hollywood symbol, Harrington also hopes they see just what a strong woman West really was.
“She didn’t just spend 10 years as an actress and then was forgotten,” Harrington said. “She lasted in show business for seven decades, and her philosophies are very interesting.”
As to what those philosophies are, audiences just have to wait and see. However, Harrington assures the musical’s message is fitting for nearly every demographic.
“You don’t have to know, or think you know, who she is to appreciate (the play),” she said.
Harrington’s one-woman show is running at the Nittany Theatre at the Barn for five nights only, Tuesday-Sept. 16.
IF YOU GO
- What: “Mae”
- When: Tuesday-Sept. 16
- Where: Nittany Theatre at the Barn, Boal Estate Drive, Boalsburg
- Info: nittanytheatre.org