For a fledgling theater producer to pen his premiere musical in a matter of months, then invest his own savings into mounting a full production at the city's most prestigious venue, is (to be blunt) more than a little bit bold. But that's nothing next to the bravery of the real-life female spies that helped win World War II, and whose unsung exploits inspired Tristan Bishop's Bold: The Musical, which makes its debut this week at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater in the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
I dropped in on a rehearsal late last month to meet Bishop and learn why this former funk musician turned stage father is going all-in on this unfortunately timely anti-Fascist tuner. Born in New York, Tristan Bishop's "hippie" parents moved him from Morocco to India to Latin Miami before high school; he says, "I've lived in a lot of cultures, and that leads directly to the show that I've written." After spending his 20s touring with the House Jacks (a proto-Pentatonix a cappella group that opened for James Brown and Ray Charles) and writing "the first pop album" for Kai, "the first Asian-American boy band," Bishop dropped out of professional entertainment for two decades to work in information technology, "making money and raising kids."
Bold: The Musical (boldmusical.com) is truly a family affair. Kierstyn Bishop, Tristan's wife of 24 years, serves as producer and company co-founder, while his tween daughter, Natalie, a performer at the Holy Land Experience who encouraged her dad's return to the stage, is featured in the cast. In 2017, Bishop founded the Unity Players as a 501(c)3 corporation with the mission to "channel the power of the arts in order to help and serve children." The foundation's chief focus is on funding mentoring activities for local foster youth through iPrevail's Friends of Foster Homes program (iwillprevail.org), where Kierstyn volunteers. "Natalie and I got this idea that we could use our artistic ability to help fund the service projects that my wife was doing," says Bishop.
Their debut production of Annie at the Dr. Phillips Center in May 2018 raised $7,000. "It just blew up, we sold every seat," Bishop says, but he was still unsatisfied with the returns. "The thing that really got me was writing the $11,000 check to the guy who wrote Annie, because that was $11,000 that I couldn't donate. ... So I thought, why don't I write a show?"
After toying with treatments about Rosie the Riveter and Josephine Baker, Bishop settled upon a fictionalized narrative about Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, which sent women operatives on secret resistance missions in German-occupied territory.
"I wanted to create a female-centric show," Bishop explains, "so I spent the summer looking at stories in history where women had to step out of conventional roles, where historical circumstances had forced them to move beyond the gender expectations of the day."
Bishop sat down last fall and composed the sung-through score using Logic music software during a 12-day sabbatical from his day job (which eventually became a permanent separation), then recruited singers to record a concept album (which can be streamed at soundcloud.com).
"This show is Les Miz and Hamilton in a blender, with a little bit of Beauty and the Beast on top of it," Bishop happily admits when asked to cite his musical theater influences. "It's not subtle, either."
Though he acknowledges it's unlikely to land on Broadway, Bishop says he had a specific educational objective in mind when crafting Bold.
"I was actually trying to create a piece of art that high schools and colleges could do with the people they have in their programs. I was watching my daughter's high-school program, and there were three or four women for every man," he observes. "There are 10 incredible girls that are always in the ensemble, and they're scraping boys off the wall to make it work. So this show has nine principal roles for women of a variety of ethnicities, by design; and the male roles rap, because you can get a high-school boy to rap in a show and he's not embarrassed about it."
The Dr. Phillips Center has made headlines recently with their unaffordable rental rates for the upcoming Steinmetz Hall, but Bishop has nothing negative to say about being an independent producer in the Pugh Theater.
"We were one of their first fully sold-out projects, so they've been great to us," he says. However, he warns that "it's amazing [but] it's not cheap. They give us a good deal because we're a nonprofit, so we get to lock up the place for a full week." Even with a discount, the Bishops took money out of their retirement account to fund the production: "We put $40,000 of our own money in to make $15,000. It's a gamble, and if we lose it, we lose it; our heart's in the right place, and we're still going to make a donation even if we don't turn a profit."
(Bold runs Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 8-11, in the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater in the Dr. Phillips Center; tickets are $25.)
This story is from the Aug. 7, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.