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Sennett Adapts Novel for the Stage — Musical Premieres February 9 & 10

Bob Sennett
Bob Sennett's third musical, At Swim, Two Boys, plays at Northeastern University's Center for the Arts on February 9 and 10.

February 8, 2007 – Bob Sennett, Bibliographic Assistant in the Fine Arts Library, is a busy man right now as he helps oversee the third and final week of rehearsals for his upcoming stage production, At Swim, Two Boys. The musical, Sennett’s third, premieres at Northeastern University’s Center for the Arts this coming weekend, February 9 and 10.

Based on a 2001 novel by Irish author Jamie O’Neill, the musical is set in Dublin in 1915-1916 around the time of the Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Irish history. The story follows the friendship and then romance of the two 16-year-old boys in the title. "One is in school, the other at work," explains Sennett. "They meet in a band that their local parish school starts and they fall in love and, as always with love stories, everything else goes out of control because of that."

This is far from Sennett’s first foray into stage production. He and his songwriting partner Allen Feinstein, Class of 1986, have already written two previous shows together, and Sennett has managed lights and sound over the years in community theater. That said, when Sennett first read O’Neill’s novel, he thought it had a beautiful central story, but it was some time before he decided it might make great source material. "After a year or two I read it again," he says. "Then I wrote to Mr. O’Neill, and he encouraged me to develop the work."

That was two years ago. Sennett first organized a couple of staged readings where his script was simply read to an audience sans costumes and sets. But then Feinstein, who is also Director of Bands and Lecturer in the Music Department at Northeastern, approached that school’s Center for the Arts to propose a full stage production. The Center, which operates as a professional theatre, chose At Swim, Two Boys as one of its three main shows for the year.

At Swim, Two Boys
Based on a 2001 novel by Irish author Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys is set in Dublin in 1915-1916 around the time of the Easter Rising.

Sennett wrote the script and lyrics, Feinstein the music, and Tony Parise stepped in to direct. (The last two are also involved with Harvard’s annual Hasty Pudding Theatricals production and have been for years.) Adapting the nearly 600 page book into a play was a challenge. "Generally speaking you have to make it visually simple, and it cannot be any longer than two-and-a-half-hours," says Sennett.  "So what you do is decide what story you’re telling, how many people you need to tell it, and then you go looking for places in the book that emotionally affected you the most. In my case you make them into songs."

In total, he and Feinstein wrote 38 songs, of which they deemed only 22 worthy enough for the final show. "I‘ve done this often enough to know the rhythm of a musical play," says Sennett. "You have to make the songs fit the need of the story. If it doesn’t fit, you write a new one. Even now in rehearsal we’re changing lines as we see the show performed with real people."

Sennett brought the musical to production in only two years, a relatively fast track. Because a film company is considering adapting O’Neill’s book for the big screen, Sennett is currently waiting and hoping the company passes on the project so that he can negotiate with O’Neill to take his show further.

With this weekend’s premiere nearing, Sennett notes that the production of the piece is by far the hardest part. "When you write the play you can do anything you want," explains Sennett. "But each step off the page, somebody else gets involved and they have another agenda or another idea of how something should be done or look or sound. When you add in a collaborator, a stage director, sets, costumes, a budget, and actors, it’s very difficult to hold onto what inspired you in the first place and the vision of what you wanted to see happen."

Still, for Sennett the best part is just seeing it done. "I love the experience of being in a production," he says. "I love the joy actors have when they talk to you. Despite the amount of work, despite the expense—and we spent a lot of money on this over the years—when I’m there I love it."  

At Swim, Two Boys runs February 9 and 10 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Arts, Blackman Theatre, Ell Hall, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston. The show starts at 8 p.m.

For tickets, call 617-373-2247.  Tickets are $20 with a $5 discount for Harvard ID holders. There is a 20% discount for WGBH members.