From Boy to Man: Bowdoin Grad Writes Coming-of-Age Musical

By Tom Porter

Cordelia Zars ’16 has chosen the musical format for her debut as a playwright. She’s written a show about gender and masculinity exploring the emotional challenges faced by boys as they approach manhood. 

Man Up by Cordelia Zars
Cover Art design by Walker Cahall

Growing Pains 

The three-act musical, called Man Up, focuses on the experiences of one boy in particular, called Duncan, as he struggles to define himself while growing up with his sister on a ranch out West. “As Duncan progresses through middle school and toward early adulthood, he becomes more conflicted about reconciling the traditional expectations of masculinity with his own identity, and this affects relationships with his sister and his female best friend,” says Zars, who majored in music at Bowdoin.

“I interviewed a lot of men while writing this. I also have two brothers and a lot of guy friends and I’ve noticed how men often struggle to show their emotions and identify themselves outside the traditional context of what it means to be a man, often finding it difficult to connect with others on an emotional level.”

Zars works as a theater director, a teacher, and as a producer with the popular Dirtbag Diaries podcast from her home in Denver, Colorado. She says she wrote Man Up in response to the #MeToo movement and hopes to generate a wider discussion on the gender issue. “I feel there has been a lot of really important debate about how women have been affected by the gender dynamics and misogyny that still exists in this country, but men are struggling right now too.” 

The root cause of much of the violence and discrimination against women, she says, is down to the way that boys are encouraged by society to abandon their sensitivity and lose touch with their emotions as they conform to the norms of being a man. “I teach middle schoolers, and I’m struck by the huge process of transformation boys go through. As they leave their childhood behind, they also often leave behind their ability to express their feelings.”

Why a Musical? 

“As a format, I think the musical has the most artistic potential, because it has, on one hand, the intellectual power of language, but you’re also acting out these subconscious levels of emotion, which music is normally responsible for,” says Zars. “So rather than having an actor stand up and say a soliloquy, he’s singing it, and to me this is much more emotionally convective.” 

She plans for Man Up to debut in November at Theater O, a professional theater in Boulder and is currently raising funds for the project. “We had our first read-through in the summer, and it was really exciting to see what the actors bring to the characters I’ve created. I directed shows and acted at Bowdoin, but it’s a totally different experience being the creator, and starting out with a blank sheet of paper.”

Watch a video interview with Cordelia Zars talking about Man Up and playing musical excerpts 

Videographer: Erik Fellenstein.