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Shining Stars: Michael Cooper

(Courtesy Michael Cooper)

Michael Cooper describes Nogales, Arizona, as a small, multicultural melting pot. Nevertheless, he felt like an outsider growing up there. He carries that with him every day as he approaches life in the world’s largest melting pot, New York City. He says the border town lessons about inclusion vs. exclusion, and being open to new experiences, stories, and spreading love are what inspire his award-winning artistic work today.

Even after 17 years in New York, Cooper finds it difficult being away from those hometown connections. “In Nogales, there weren’t many Jews other than immediate family,” the songwriter recalls. While he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson and spent summers at Camp Alonim in California, he feels being Jewish is “more in the DNA. You can’t separate who you are from those traditions.”

Often travelling to New York as a child with his grandparents on their business trips, Cooper remembers falling in love with the Broadway shows and museums. Now he makes Broadway his professional home, composing music and lyrics for the stage.

Cooper found his calling in the Nogales High School drama department, where he started writing musicals as freshman. “What an opportunity, to write and put on musicals there. I was fearless to just jump up and tell a story,” he recalls.

Inspired by the greats, Cooper did his bachelor’s degree in theater at Williams College in Massachusetts, which Stephen Sondheim and other Jewish mentors attended. “They were a big inspiration in my studying theater,” he says. His other option was Wesleyan University, the Tony-winning “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s alma mater. “He is about my age, 39. I often ponder how different my life would be if we had been there at the same time. It’s amazing that our paths did cross and I studied with him later,” says Cooper. Cooper spent a year in London and traveled before returning to graduate school at New York University for a master of fine arts degree in musical theater writing.

His Broadway stage debut in 2016, “It Should Have Been You,” is about a family cultural clash with a Jewish daughter and Catholic groom. “It was my goal and dream. It had an amazing cast with Tyne Daley,” he says. “I remember listening to Broadway cast albums as a kid in Nogales and now I am working with those people.” He calls it manifestation.

Cooper likes all musical genres and calls music a universal language. “It’s like a Jewish family, surrounded by the Mexican culture in Nogales all shaken up in me.” Cooper’s grandmother Bette Capin’s family were among the earliest Jewish immigrants in the American southwest. Bette is a traditional Jewish grandmother who also cooks great Mexican food, he says.

Cooper is Liane and David Cooper’s only child. Grandparents Bette and Leonard Cooper owned the family Capin Mercantile Corporation, sold in the late 90s and now called Factory 2 U, right on the international border in Nogales. His maternal grandmother, Joan Lipsey, was a choreographer, while Alfred Lipsey, a U.S. Air Force man, had a passion for community theater, acting and directing. “They’ve all been supportive of my work,” Cooper says. He feels his late grandfather Alfred is proud of him. “I feel him sitting on my shoulder.” Lipsey was president of the Jewish Historical Society and took the young Cooper to Arizona Theatre Company and Invisible Theatre performances in Tucson. “Between the four grandparents, I had an extensive arts education.”

Cooper’s most recent project was “Second to Nun,” a musical based on the heroic, adventurous life of a fearless pioneer and Canada’s first female saint, Marguerite Bourgeoys. Through song and monologue, this one-woman musical recounts Bourgeoys’ death-defying feats to bring “liberated” women to the New World and help build the city of Montreal.

“This character spoke to my heart and soul. She was such an incredible woman. With her, borders evaporated. Her love and inclusion speaks to me,” Cooper says. He found creating a one-woman musical challenging, but the result gives him the most pride. “Being small, it was easy to produce. But, it is challenging working with the context of one voice — to keep it fresh, interesting and contemporary.”

Cooper is drawn to historical subject matter. He recently contracted with Edgar Cayce’s estate to do a musical on Cayce’s life, due in 2020. Cayce was an early 20th century American clairvoyant and the “founder” of the New Age movement. “With blessings of the Edgar Cayce institute, we will have access to primary documents, letters and files. The Edgar Cayce score will be different in its own way. Being in the south, it may even call for banjos,” Cooper ponders.

His other plays include an original song for Anton Dudley’s play, “City Of,” and lyrics for the musicals “Luna Park” and “Sunfish.” Honors include the Outer Critics Circle and MAC Award songwriter nominations; 2017 Fred Ebb Award finalist; the 2005 Jonathan Larson, Daryl Roth and the TRU Daniel Marshall Multicultural Award; Best New American Musical, at the Daegu International Music Theatre Festival, South Korea 2013; and BroadwayWorld Award for the Best Musical, for “Sunfish.” His musicals were produced on Broadway and Off-Broadway, in Virginia Beach, Paris and London. He is on the advisory board at Astoria Performing Arts Center and is president of Three Hundred Bags of Rice Inc., a theatrical production company.

While Cooper writes, composes and produces, lately he leans toward writing music — telling stories through song. “At some point, I would love to write something about Nogales. It would be fun to bring a piece back to Arizona, maybe to the Patagonia Opera House or ATC,” he says. He visits Tucson whenever he can and his family flies out to see his premiers, whether they are in Virginia, New York, London or Paris.

“When you’re a writer, especially of musicals that take so long to create, it’s an ephemeral thing. It’s great to have family sitting in the theater watching it,” he says.

“I miss the space and expanse of Southern Arizona,” Cooper says. “As a child, I couldn’t wait to get out of there to the lights and fast pace. Now, I love the space, quiet and beauty. But that goes hand in hand with having my
family there.”