Finding Success in the Mad World of Music

by Rebekah Bruckner ’18

“We began working on our musical, Mad World, back in 2010,” said Steven Schmidt, ’17, commercial music major. Schmidt and close friend, Christian Guerrero, collaborated to develop a musical during their senior year of high school. The idea for Mad World came to them on a whim, sparked by Guerrero’s discovery of a few interesting articles about Charles Dodgson, known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He proposed the idea to Schmidt. “After discovering the mystery, intrigue, and genius of Dodgson’s life, Christian called me and we agreed there was a story waiting to be told.” This phone call proved catalytic for both as they embarked on a journey to create a unique theatrical production that is now gaining acclaim.

Last April, USC Libraries Wonderland Award Competition recognized Mad World with its first Charles Dodgson Award. This prestigious recognition, given to Schmidt and his team, honored the depth of their work in highlighting Dodgson’s ingenuity and indelible contribution to the literary world. They received a $10,000 award and gained valuable connections to the Lewis Carroll Societies in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Mad World debuted at Schmidt’s high school in 2010, and later at Ball State University after winning the Discovery New Musical Theatre Festival in the summer of 2014. Schmidt and his team are now in the process of reworking the text and finishing the next stage of revisions. They plan to use the money from the award to fund a writer’s retreat to complete the final draft of the script. Anything remaining will help fund submissions to professional competitions and workshops. “Our greatest hope is that this story continues to resonate with audiences and makes a positive impact.”

Mad World presents a fresh perspective on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by telling the story of the real girl behind the character of Alice. “The show centers on the relationship between Charles and Alice’s family and its mysterious dissolution,” he said. The show depicts a candid portrayal of Dodgson’s life, explaining the beauty, intrigue, and darkness within.

“APU was foundational in my development as a writer, which contributed to our success with Mad World," said Schmidt. "Whether it be technical, performance-oriented, creative, or even philosophical, this training impacted me profoundly as an artist and working professional.” As he worked alongside other talented musicians, Schmidt was constantly challenged as an artist. “My professors facilitated an awareness that art can affect, and is intimately affected, by everything around it: politics, pop culture, history, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, scholarship, business. Whether they knew it or not, their examples encouraged my diverse curiosity and gave me permission to explore all of it through art.”

“Steven is wonderfully gifted with unusual musical hearing skills. Those aural skills aid him enormously in composition, and pair with his theoretical understanding of music to help him find unusual stylistic choices that serve the music in unexpected ways, while still being accessible to an audience,” said Phil Shackleton, DMA, chair, Department of Musical Studies.

Along with his work on Mad World, Schmidt teaches music at Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and at an elementary school. He also works as a freelance singer, worship leader, keyboardist, and composer. He is in the process of producing another show with Guerrero titled Bravo. “Bravo tells the story of a group of oppressed children in WWII-era Italy hiding for their lives,” said Schmidt. “Their experiences force them to come to terms with their own prejudices, fears, and loves, leading to new understandings about what it means to be different.” Bravo had its first staged reading in June.

Schmidt shared his advice for young writers: “Write a lot of material and throw away liberally. Invest time in good art and experiences to develop an artistic instinct. Educate yourself in the history of the medium. Be humble. And finally, write with people more talented than you.”

Rebekah Bruckner ’18 is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a English major and a graphic design minor.