“I'm not a particularly political comic': Brently Heilbron gets political with 'Young Greg Abbott'
“I'm not a particularly political comic,” says Brently Heilbron as he describes the genesis of his new satirical musical Young Greg Abbott. The writer and actor, probably best known as the creator of the emo puppet rock musical Fragile Rock, was compelled to get a little more political while reading and watching news reports about the Texas governor's policies. “I saw him speak, and it was when children were being separated at the border, which is pretty egregious. And his continuous, just terrible, terrible decisions that were just straight up mean, just so mean and cruel. And I started writing a protest song because sometimes anger has to come out in a vaudeville way. At least that's how it comes out with me. I'm not a political writer, but I started writing a song which I can't repeat on the air, but you'll hear it in the show. Lots of swears. And songs just started flowing.”
Inspired by that rush of protest-based creativity, Heilbron decided to dig a little deeper into Abbott’s life and viewpoints. “I picked up his [auto]biography [Broken But Unbowed: The Fight to Fix a Broken America]. I read it chapter to chapter,” he says. “I can't say I recommend it, but I read it and started writing songs based on his history and his past.”
Before long, Heilbron had written not just a handful of songs about the Texas governor but a full-on musical. “Young Greg Abbott is an American book musical set in 1984 about young Greg Abbott fresh out of law school,” he says, “ready to start his career in public service, on his way to Austin to take the Bar, where he meets many central figures in Texas history that we've come to know and loathe.”
Young Greg Abbott is a highly fictionalized version of Abbott’s youthful adventures, but how much fact made it into the musical? “More fact than you think,” Heilbron says. “A lot of fiction, obviously, but more facts than you think. We tried to actually throw in a lot of statistics, a lot of the things Greg Abbott's actually done.”
The goal of Young Greg Abbott, Heilbron says, is not just to mock Abbott and his policies, but to try and understand how and why Abbott came to be the man he is. “I really wanted to not just satirize who he is now,” he says, “but explore how did he become who he became? That to me is the fascinating question and I hope we answer it.”
The full version of Young Greg Abbott won’t debut until sometime in 2024, but Heilbron will present a free live reading of the script (along with performances of all the songs in the show) this Sunday night. He says after working on the show for a while, he just needed to share it with the world in some way. “At some point…. you have to get it out of your head and you gotta put it in front of people,” he says, “And so my wife was like, ‘let's just do a reading, let's not charge anything, no pressure, let's do a reading.’ [It’s] just to get the songs out there because we feel so powerless… up against someone like Greg Abbott. And this is a way to take some of the power back, if that's even possible.
“Musical theater is a really ripe form of social protest,” Heilbron says. “It's happened since the 19th century with The Beggar's Opera and Pirates of Penzance, which kind of railed against the ruling classes, into the 20th century with Showboat, which dealt with racial injustice. Up to Rent, up to Hamilton. Some people are really meant to have musicals written about them.”
Chances are that Greg Abbott will never see Young Greg Abbott, but Heilbron says the governor is more than welcome at the show. “If Greg Abbott wants to show up to his own musical, there is a seat reserved for you, sir,” Heilbron says. “Who wouldn't enjoy my musicals?”