There was a time when former Nittany Lion and Cincinnati Bengal football star Mike Reid terrorized his opponents. From his position on the defensive line, Reid pawed at quarterbacks and dragged to the ground any ball carrier within arm’s reach. But in late May, sitting behind a black, well-polished upright piano and gently mentoring the cast of “The Last Day,” visions of that ferocious competitor were tough to imagine.
Reid, an alumnus of the School of Music, had just made the trip to University Park from his home in Nashville, where he has established a successful career as a songwriter over the last four decades since he ended his football career in 1974. The deep desire to pursue his talent for creating music and the prospect of losing that gift due to injury swayed his decision to hang up his spikes.
The result has been a Grammy Award-winning career that has produced several number-one hits as a songwriter, including “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” performed by Bonnie Raitt, and a number-one country hit for his performance of “Walk on Faith” from his debut solo album “Turning from Home.” In the 90s, Reid turned his focus to composing musical theatre, which resulted in creating numerous musicals, including the award-winning musical “The Ballad of Little Joy.”
Despite his success as a musician, Reid’s main connection to Penn State has been through football. That changed in 2016 when John Simpkins, head of the Musical Theatre program, launched a new musicals commissioning program, with the musicals to be written by industry leaders and performed by Penn State musical theatre students.
“When we began to brainstorm about who we could ask to write these musicals, Mike was one of the first that came to mind,” Simpkins said. “His success as a songwriter and his connection to Penn State made this a natural fit, but his skill, professionalism and beautiful storytelling has made the project truly special.”
Simpkins reached out to Reid and although the opportunity to work with his alma mater on a musical offered a homecoming of sorts, Reid had his reservations.
“At first, I was completely flattered that John thought of me. And then the prospect of writing a musical for Penn State, a place that has meant so much to me, filled me with joy and emotion,” Reid said. “But, I sat back and thought, ‘I’m 70 years old. How can I connect with these kids?’”
To manage Reid’s reservations, Simpkins invited him to campus to meet a group of then-juniors. Reid brought along his writing partner of almost 30 years, Sarah Schlesinger, associate dean of performing arts at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and the two engaged with the students for what Reid said was an “enlightening” experience.
“Here was a room full of vibrant students with incredible ideas and the enthusiasm was infectious. I was hooked,” Reid said. “But I was still a bit apprehensive. I wasn’t sure I could produce ideas relevant to this generation, but I knew I could write about the emotions that come with those ideas.”
To bridge what Reid saw as a generational gap, he asked the students a simple question: What are you most afraid of?
The answers resulted in Reid and Schlesinger writing “The Last Day,” an ambitious musical theatre piece that tackles issues relevant to today's youth including mental health and substance abuse among college students. The musical begins with protagonist Jason Burke, a senior musical theatre student at a large university whose struggles with trauma related to a family tragedy and an addiction to Xanax are causing his life to spiral out of control.
The opening scene finds Jason at rock bottom and on the verge of making a dire mistake. Then, over the course of one night, his peers attempt to show him the value of his life and in the process they all discover how much they never realized about themselves.
Rising senior Caleb Smith, who plays Jason, said although the piece deals with a heavy subject matter, Reid’s songwriting has an uplifting undertone that not only carries the story, but gently addresses the emotions surrounding the issues.
“Mike is such a thoughtful and amazing guy with incredible insights. And then he sits down at the keys and it really blows you away,” Smith said. “Working with him has been a highlight of my time at Penn State and I couldn’t imagine a better person to craft the dramatic arc of this character. This experience has just been a dream come true.”
The opportunity to return to Penn State and collaborate with Simpkins on the fifteen-song musical, which runs about 90 minutes without intermission, has offered Reid a bit of an oasis in a storybook musical career that he said isn’t coming to an end anytime soon.
“This experience has been like a water stop in a marathon,” Reid said. “Coming back to Penn State in this capacity has been rejuvenating and I hope that we have created a musical that speaks to people and maybe even sheds a bit of light on issues that students are facing, not just at our university, but all throughout society.”
“The Last Day,” directed by Simpkins with musical direction by Jennifer Peacock, runs June 12-15 and June 19-22 at 8 p.m. at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. Tickets are $25 for general public and $12.50 for students. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit theatre.psu.edu/thelastday.