A Magnificent Gymnastics Musical

A Q&A with Gordon Leary and Julia Meinwald, creators of The Magnificent Seven musical.

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The first thought I had when I heard that someone was making a musical about the Magnificent Seven was, “Finally.”

Why did it take more than 20 years for someone to make a musical about the 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal winning performance in Atlanta? The 1996 team final had it all—flips, twists, misogynistic NBC commentary, awkward puff pieces, and a finale that was so melodramatic that it’s actually quite shocking that no one broke out in song at the time. 

(I suppose they actually did burst into song with the Star Spangled Banner during the medal ceremony but I like my show tunes to be a little less jingoistic and militaristic.)

There have been plenty of musicals about other sports. If you like baseball, you’ve got Damn Yankees and several others. Boxing has had a few including Rocky the Musical. Soccer has Bend It Like Beckham. There have been musicals about football and basketball. Hell, even cheerleading had its Broadway moment with the stage adaptation of Bring It On. It’s about damn time that someone thought to take one of the most theatrical and performative of Olympic sports and set it to song the way that God always intended. 

I first met Gordon Leary and Julia Meinwald, the creators of The Magnificent Seven, this past spring at a coffee shop near Washington Square Park after a friend of a friend connected us over email. Leary and Meinwald became collaborators when they were both students at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. That morning, they told me about the musical they were working on and I clapped my hands in excitement like a seal who happens to have very frizzy hair.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was quite hungover that morning so they bought me a breakfast burrito and coffee. The positive tone of this newsletter and interview might reflect a burrito-based bias so keep that in mind as you read on.) 

In mid July, the two staged the first full length reading of the show at Urban Stages in Manhattan. Typically, these readings attract no more than 20-30 people, usually friends and families of the actors and writers along with some industry folk. But the gymternet caught wind of the performance and packed the 60 seat theater for the free performance; people were even turned away at the door after the theater had reached capacity. That night, Leary and Meinwald learned about the power of the gymternet. It is a lesson they will not soon forget.

Since it was just a reading, the actors didn’t appear in costumes. They simply sat on stools with the book in front of them. There were only ten stools on stage for the actors—seven for the members of the team and three for the NBC commentariat. Yes, Tim, Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, and John Tesh are characters in the show and a lot of their dialogue is taken verbatim from their cringeworthy TV commentary. If you’re a true gymnerd of a certain age, you have that shit memorized because you watched your VHS recording of the competition so many times that the sound started to warp and the commentators’ voices slowed until Tesh sounded downright demonic. 

What was noticeably absent from the show was any of the coaches. This was a bold choice especially since Bela Karolyi played an outsized role in the NBC TV coverage in 1996. His “You can do it!” chant from the sidelines as Strug prepared to vault on the injured ankle became famous and then became something of a punchline. (When I spoke to Strug in 2016 for the 20th anniversary of the Magnificent Seven’s win, she joked, “All these years later, now that I’m a mom, I’m like, Really? That’s all you thought of? That’s what I’m telling my four-year-old little boy when he’s playing T-ball. ‘You can do it! Come on honey, you can do it!’”) And one of the most famous images from those Games is of Karolyi carrying Strug to the medal podium for the awards ceremony. 

The coaches’ presence, however, is felt in the show; the gymnasts speak and sing about them, worry about what they think. But at the end of the day, the stage belongs to the young women, which is as it should be.

I emailed Leary and Meinwald questions right after seeing The Magnificent Seven while waiting on the subway platform for the C train back to Brooklyn, still feeling giddy from the performance. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Dvora Meyers: How long have you guys been working together?

Gordon Leary & Julia Meinwald: We met in graduate school in 2005 and wrote a few songs here and there while in school and just after finishing our program. We wrote our first longer piece together in 2008, and we’ve been working together as primary collaborators ever since.

DM: How did you guys decide to write a musical about the 1996 Olympics?

GL: A musical about the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team competition has been my dream project since I decided that I could write musicals in high school in the late 90s. Kerri’s final vault had to be one of the most magically dramatic moments from my adolescence—full of hope and patriotism, a victory for the underdog, a young person making an international mark for good—and that is exactly the kind of magic I always wanted to put on stage. I started the show by myself back in 1999, but thankfully never wrote more than part of a song or two (since I’m a terrible composer). When Julia and I first started talking about shows we might write, this was one of the first ideas that I brought up! We tend to write about communities of young women. Our first musical was called Pregnancy Pact, and we have a show about online true crime communities that are mostly populated by young women, and both delve into what we call the “humanity behind the headline” to explore the emotional landscape that lives beneath the salaciousness of those stories. While the ‘96 team doesn’t have the darkness of those other works, we were still drawn to the complexities of these young women that are rarely considered.

DM:  What about the Magnificent Seven lends itself to musical theater?

GL & JM: Musicals are, by nature, situated in a world with heightened emotions and stakes. The characters in musicals must have moments where regular words fail them to a point that they can only communicate through song. Stakes could never be higher than they are on the international stage of the Olympics. Additionally, gymnastics is inherently performative in a way few other sports are, which allows the transfer from one venue and medium to another to be pretty seamless—at least in our minds!

DM: You use the NBC commentariat as a Greek chorus of sorts. Why did you decide to do that? (Beyond the fact that they’re hilarious.)

GL & JM: The three commentators weren’t a part of our original conception of the show, but as we watched and re-watched videos of the Games, it felt like the way that the commentators talk about the women shaped the way the audience thinks of them, in both the live play-by-play and the pre-packaged spotlights on athletes. There’s a weird dichotomy of removing their humanity in the way they talk candidly and clinically during their performances while highlighting the athletes’ humanity in an almost grotesque and infantilizing way when showing them outside of the competition. (The focus on Dominique Dawes’ parents’ divorce in her biographical video package is still so shocking to me.) It shapes the way that the world sees the athletes, and we have tried to use those two extremes to explore the honest humanity of the gymnasts that exists in the middle ground.

DM: Gymnastics is a sport with a strong coaching bias. (Actually a lot of sports are that way.) Athletes have short careers and the coaches stick around for decades. There’s a Russian coach who once came right out and said that the athlete is secondary to the coach. Yet the coaches, though they’re mentioned, don’t appear onstage at all. Can you talk about the decision to exclude them?

GL & JM: There was a lot of talk about whether or not Bela Karolyi would be a part of the story as a stand-in for all of the coaches. In the end, though, the way we want to tell this story goes back to the way we watched these Olympics as adolescents and saw ourselves in the athletes. While we want to be true to the dynamics of the sport and understand how it works beyond what is shown to the masses on television, we also want to keep our focus on the athletes because there’s so much to mine in that very singular experience.

DM: Gordon, you joked that this is a gymnastics musical where no actual gymnastics will be done. Going forward, how do you plan to visually represent the sport so that people who don’t have the 1996 Olympics memorized will be able to envision some sort of action?

GL: In a practical way, we knew that the pool of actors who could both sing Julia’s music and do elite-level gymnastics was likely non-existent. Additionally, the number of spaces in which a musical can be presented that can also be outfitted for actual, safe gymnastics—elite-level or not—seems limiting.

Limitations can often allow for the best kind of creativity, though, and we are excited by all of the theatrical possibilities of representing gymnastics onstage. We imagine all sorts of things: dance, obviously, can work as a stand-in, but also different forms of puppetry and projections and anything that our other collaborators can dream up! We want to build a wide visual language for the show in order to evoke the control of the balance beam, the fluidity of the uneven bars, the soaring of the vault, and the power of the floor exercise. We can’t wait to get to work in the actors’ bodies and see what is possible!

DM: This musical (like a Britney Spears song) seems to have something to say about being a girl and being a woman. Would you mind talking a bit about this?

GL & JM: As we said before, our work frequently deals with communities of women, particularly women in adolescence and early adulthood. It’s a time of transition and a time of self-reflection when a person begins to form their identity. That is really what’s at the heart of our work. For the gymnasts in this story, though, that question is magnified. It isn’t just about figuring out who they will be as adults, it’s about coming to terms with the knowledge that the person they’ve worked their whole young lives to become has a shelf life that they can’t control. And they grapple with that crisis while navigating friendships and rivalries and the male gaze and an unyielding focus on their adolescent bodies (which, in a very real way, [are a] stand in for their nation in this kind of international competition), all while having to project an almost unattainable kind of femininity.

What’s surprised us is how much of ourselves we see in their journeys. There isn’t a huge difference between being a gymnast and being a theatre-maker. We’ve been developing the show with actors and actresses who, like us, are in their late 20s and 30s, who remember what it was like to watch the ‘96 Games, and who wouldn’t obviously have an emotional connection to what it means to be 14 or 16 or 18 or 19. But the ageism and the bodily pressure and being pitted against each other and the fear of your own expendability touches all of us.

DM: The last few years have been quite dark for the sport. You guys started working on this project before the Larry Nassar news broke. Did the news affect how you approached the material?

GL & JM: We’d only written about six or seven songs for the show when the Nassar scandal first broke in 2016 and it certainly colored the way we think of all of the forms of abuse and predation that surrounded the gymnasts, especially knowing that he was at the Games. It isn’t a topic that we address in direct ways in the show since none of the Magnificent Seven have accused him of abuse, but in many ways, it goes hand in hand with the allegations of other forms of abuse at the Karolyi Ranch and with the general idea of the gymnasts’ bodies not being their own.

In light of the scandal, it was especially meaningful to spend some time developing the show in Flint, Michigan at the Flint Repertory Theatre with some actors and audience members coming to the show from Michigan State University. Something felt healing in that community in that moment, and it brought our work into a new light that we’re excited to continue to explore.

Photo credit: Screenshot via YouTube