Former Penn State football star Mike Reid talks about his new musical
“I’ve always been drawn to the wounded.”
So said Mike Reid, Altoona native and former Penn State and Cincinnati Bengals football player turned Grammy Award-winning country music composer.
Reid returned to his alma mater not to give pep talks to the football team or sign autographs, but to compose music for a new musical commissioned through the Penn State Musical Theatre program.
That musical, called “The Last Day,” is the culmination of a three-year creative process, where musical theater Program Director John Simpkins drafted Reid and his writing partner Sarah Schlesinger, assistant dean of the NYU Tisch School of Performing Arts, to meet a group of third-year musical theater students and write a musical using their talents and experiences.
“The Last Day” centers on a young man in a musical theater program who is tormented by a secret he has never told anyone. Dropped from the program at the end of his junior year, he lets his secret overtake him, while his friends and peers try to show him the value of his life over the course of one night.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Reid got his first introduction to musical theater while wounded — nursing a serious knee injury while redshirted his junior year in 1967 at Penn State, where he was on a full-ride football scholarship.
“I was on a track, and there was a question of whether I was going to survive the knee surgery,” Reid said. “(But) I had a fairly brutally treacherous ambition, and that inspired me to come back from (that injury).”
‘The only thing that makes sense to me’
During his redshirt year, he played Chicago gangster Big Jule in Penn State’s production of “Guys and Dolls,” saying the audience loved him purely because he was big, burly and knew how to play for laughs. But the experience stuck with him. He was drawn to the camaraderie and collaboration, the search for the genuine, in theater.
Reid started at Penn State as a history major, switched to business, and finally settled on music — “the only thing that makes sense to me,” he said.
“If I was given any gifts in life, it was the physical sports world ... but the passion and love was always in the music and the words,” he said.
He graduated from Penn State in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in music and guest performed as a pianist with several symphony orchestras, including the Utah Symphony Orchestra.
And yet, Reid was the No. 7 pick in the 1970 NFL Draft, starting on the defensive line for the Bengals. In his second and third seasons, he went to the Pro Bowl, and was named All-Pro both years.
In his days as a Nittany Lion, he was a captain during the 1968 and 1969 undefeated seasons. Coming off his senior year, he became one of only five defensive players in the last 50 years to take home the Maxwell Award, for the country’s best player. While at Penn State, he also wrestled and won the Eastern heavyweight wrestling title in 1967.
Emerging as a star during the early years of Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions coaching career, Reid said the program was nothing like it is today.
“This game, the stranglehold it has on the culture, was not the case (then),” he said.
Paterno always loved that his football players had other interests, and were majoring in a variety of different subjects like business, journalism, physics and music, said Reid. The head coach felt “if you came to this school, he wanted you to have the full experience of ... college life — that football was one part of it that was really important,” he said.
But as he racked up football achievements, Reid’s interest in the sport started to wane.
“A good measure to see where your life is is when time stops being a gift and becomes your opponent,” he said. “... That happened to me in sports.”
During his last year at Penn State, getting his ankles and knees taped for practice, Reid said he could remember “being so paralyzed with depression I could barely get off the taping table.”
But his moment of clarity came in 1974, while playing for the Bengals under the direction of Paul Brown.
Reid was running drills at the practice facility with his dog one day “and halfway around ... I thought, ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to do this anymore.’ ”
Reid had been composing music since third grade, and continued through college and even into his pro football career. After he decided to leave the Bengals, at age 27, he played in a band in Ohio, and even ventured back into Pennsylvania, performing at the Allegheny River Hotel in Warren, Warren County.
By Reid’s own memory, he “didn’t get serious” about songwriting until he moved to Nashville in 1980 and signed with a music publishing house for $100 a week. He and his wife, Susie, were newly married and ready to start their life together.
Four years later, Reid landed a Grammy Award for best country song with the hit “Stranger in My House,” recorded by Country Music Hall of Famer Ronnie Milsap. In his composing career, he wrote 12 No. 1 singles, including “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go,” recorded by Alabama in 1990 and “Still Losing You,” recorded by Milsap. He co-wrote with Allen Shamblin, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” one of Bonnie Raitt’s most successful singles.
But Reid said he doesn’t consider himself a country music artist.
“I was not born to that music,” Reid said. “True, authentic country music came out of the soil of people who lived very rural lives ... the musical sound of what it meant to live that life.”
Growing up in Altoona to blue-collar parents, he said his own lived experiences often inform the music he writes.
And he has carried that authenticity to his writing style of the music in “The Last Day,” said Simpkins.
“This is why I think he’s one of the finest writers in music or musical theater,” he said. “I don’t think Mike ever betrays his characters with inauthentic communication.”
Collaboration leads to ‘The Last Day’
At first, Reid admitted, he was scared to work with the Penn State students because he didn’t “want to trap a bunch of kids in music that sounds like it was written by an old man.”
But Simpkins said that was never a fear or consideration he undertook when he sought Reid out to be a guest composer. Reid understands the suffering and appreciates the emotional openness that permeates this young generation, he said.
Theater that captures the search for meaning and understanding in life is “authentic and genuine to young people,” Simpkins said. “I don’t think we can seek to just entertain, I think we can seek to ask appropriate questions that they can wrestle with.”
For Reid, that meant understanding not only what the young adults loved, but what they feared.
“A lot of their fears were based around this experience of violence, not only on campus but out in the world,” he said.
So Reid and his writing partner Schlesinger set to work — having honest conversations with the students, and developing characters and storylines around the arcs that naturally emerged.
At the end of the process, Simpkins said, they had a show that delves into mental health, addiction, violence, parental relationships and social and cultural unease. The initial group of students performed a concert of the songs in New York in January of that year, and a reading in April 2018. But where the process could have ended, Simpkins said, he decided to stretch the show into production.
The all-student cast performing “The Last Day” is “brand new,” but paid like professional actors, he said. After a three-week rehearsal process, the student actors performed last weekend and are set to finish out their final performance weekend.
For musical theater, “this is our research,” said Simpkins. “We put everyone in our laboratory, and we make something.”
Reid said what has been most striking is the experience of feeling his art take on a new life once he finishes writing the music. Like Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the music takes on a new life when a singer performs it or a director molds it.
“Those things have that sort of life where you go, ‘God, that’s not mine,’ ” he said.
“What you hope is that you’re going to create something that people feel, (something that is) maybe the chance to experience the genuine,” he said.
“The Last Day” runs through Saturday, with performances at 8 p.m. in the Penn State Downtown Theatre, 146 S. Allen St. For more information and tickets, visit https://theatre.psu.edu/thelastday.