Six-on-Six: the Musical

3dbf74e4 9c49 4567 b9ba c55e529e81ffThere’s a rich history of girls’ basketball here in Iowa. Since almost a century ago, the month of March meant the Iowa High School Girls’ Basketball tournament, and the unique game of six-on-six basketball. Playwright Robert John Ford grew up here in Iowa, and although the six-on-six version ended in 1993, that wildly popular sport is part of his history. His theatrical creation, SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL, opens next weekend for a new run at the Staplin Center in West Des Moines.

Ford remembers the origin of the show. “SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL is the first full-length original musical I wrote. The idea originated in 1987 – Lynn Lorenzen from Ventura had just broken the national scoring record, and my friend Lana invited me to Des Moines to see her and her team play in the state tournament semifinal game. Amazingly, all 13,000 tickets had already been sold, so we had to buy scalper’s tickets (for a girls’ high school basketball game!)”

“We took our seats at the top row of the balcony at Vets Auditorium, and from that vantage point, I marveled at the spectacle I was seeing – music, theatrical pageantry, costumes, conflict on and off the court. I actually uttered the phrase ‘this would make a great musical’ (I am still probably the only person to utter this phrase about six-on-six) and began working on the script and music in the year following.”

04a7c5eb 42e5 401a aea1 be68fac02b02“Part of my premise for the musical was that six-on-six would one day come to an end (Iowa had already given teams the option to start playing five-on-five in 1984-85), so the setting for the first draft of the musical was ‘sometime in the near future.’ By the time the musical had its first reading (at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego), the game had officially come to an end, so I had to revise the setting to ‘sometime in the not too distant past.’ Nonetheless, much of the storyline remained the same.”

A Game for Forever

SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL is a fictional story, based on real events and people in the long history of the sport. While audiences don’t have to be familiar with the six-on-six game to enjoy the show (the rules and history of the game are detailed through the lyrics and lines of the play), those of us who grew up on the game will vividly remember our own experiences. As someone who grew up in a small town in Iowa, I remember the excitement when my own local team made it to the Sweet Sixteen state tournament, and how my entire town literally shut down while everyone made the trek to Des Moines to cheer on our hometown girls.

People nowadays may not understand, but six-on-six was THE sport in many small towns in Iowa, the rallying point for every farmer and merchant, student and grandparent. The local team was a source of pride that could not be underestimated. And players like Denise Long from Union-Whitten, and Jeanette Olson from Everly became household names, with articles and pictures featured in Sports Illustrated magazine. At one time, the ABC television network broadcast the state finals tournament game nationally. Six-on-six was a huge deal, for many, many years.

3904072b 81ec 4c8f b9c1 75869ae20242For some of the players, it’s still part of their lives. During a publicity photo shoot for SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL, actresses Taylor Millar and Sydney Allen got to meet up with a number of women who still get together to play six-on-six from their younger days. While the players in the self-professed “granny league” may not be as fast or intense as they once were, Allen relates what she learned about their love for the sport. “They loved the idea of the show and thought it would make a great musical. They told us that a lot of them played this game when they were younger and loved it so much that they continued to play through their adult lives, many of them from all over the state of Iowa.”

Millar agrees. “They clearly love the game and the memories and traditions associated with it. If you know six-on-six, you can experience a part of their past with them. The end of six-on-six is quite sad and they all see the importance of keeping the good parts of the game alive.”

A Game for Everyone

The storyline of SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL tells of the ending of the game in Iowa, and of how people were affected by its demise. It’s not just about the sport, but about the people around it, and their loves, hopes, and dreams. Millar is too young to have been a part of the sport originally, but the material she gets to perform relates to everyone.

F8d1f8ba 02fb 4ddb 9b23 ba8c051b9931“6v6’s relationship to the story is that it was such a cherished tradition in many Iowa small towns,” says Millar. “It was the idea that you could pass on your love of the game to your children and you knew that your parents had played the game before you. The high school sweethearts wanted to pass on the tradition to their kids, the mother and daughter wanted to connect over their shared love of the game, and you were small-town famous if you were good at the game. The stakes were pretty high to beat out your friends to get the town’s attention.”

“The drama of the ‘behind the scenes’ things really lend it to being a musical. Not that we couldn’t have it be a play, but I think you need the grandeur of the musical numbers to have it match the game’s importance at its height of popularity. It also helps lighten the subject. I think the show could be really melancholy if you don’t get those musical numbers to raise spirits.”

A Game to Discover

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Both Allen and Millar get to play basketball in the show, and obviously it’s a new sport for both of them, at least as far as the six-on-six version. It’s been a learning experience, but one they’ve welcomed. As Allen has discovered, “I knew women had done sports a little differently, but didn’t know all of the details or that six-on-six originated in Iowa! I haven’t played basketball since fifth grade so being in this show has been like riding a bike. It’s been so long since I’ve touched a basketball or been on a team setting, so it’s been a fun challenge to work with some great basketball players, and with other cast members like myself who don’t have a ton of experience.”

“We have all been helping each other out. I get to run quite a few basketball plays throughout the show, and even get to make a couple shots that are critical to the plot. It’s a lot of pressure, but like the character Jolynn says in the script, ‘Winning isn’t everything.’ I try my best and practice shooting as much as possible, so that when show time rolls around I can be confident and make it in the hoop!”

Millar has her own challenges. “I’ve never played many team sports. But now, I’m seeing how important the relationship of the team is. Luckily, all of my plays are planned out for me (and there aren’t that many in six-on-six basketball) but I can’t imagine having to make all those decisions and communicate them to the team in real time.”

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“I regularly remind people that this is not a documentary on stage,” says playwright Ford. “It is, in fact, a musical, and with a musical comes certain expectations. Sure, a musical about six-on-six doesn’t need a love story, but in honestly telling the story of a high school girl, it’s reasonable to believe she would be experiencing some puppy love at the same time she’s destroying other teams on the court. The mother-daughter storyline evokes a little bit of GYPSY, except this time it’s a sports mom rather than a stage mom – a mom setting expectations too high and living vicariously through a daughter until the daughter is strong enough to stand up to her. In telling the full story of six-on-six, I think all of these storylines and subplots are important and are tied together throughout.”

If you want to reconnect with a part of Iowa’s past (and maybe even part of your own), or if you just want to see what this amazing sport and experience were like, then you need to go see SIX-ON-SIX: THE MUSICAL. Presented by Urbandale Community Theatre and Epic Stage Productions, shows run from August 3 – 12 at the Staplin Center for Performing Arts at Valley High School in West Des Moines. Tickets are available through the Urbandale Theatre website or at the door.

Urbandale Community Theatre Epic Stage Productions Robert John Ford Taylor Millar Sydney Allen