"Cory, this is Sharon."
For playwright Cory Grant, meeting his mother's high school friend couldn't have lasted more than three minutes. But this memory was the groundwork for the Piccolo Spoleto Theatre Series debut of Derma, a musical about one woman's attempt to live life to the fullest in the face of a debilitating disease.
Sharon had scleroderma, a relatively little-known autoimmune disease manifesting itself in the hardening of the skin and internal organs.
"When I went to shake Sharon's hand, I noticed her smile. Her disease had taken its toll on her skin. Some of her fingers were missing and her whole hand was cocooned in a bandage, but her smile glowed," Grant remembers. "And I wrapped my little hand around hers and shook it. I remember thinking for the first time in my life that a body was a separate thing from a soul."
Derma, co-written by New York University's Tisch School of the Arts graduates Grant and Jared Coseglia, focuses on the narrative of lead character Joan, played by skilled Broadway performer Megan Lewis. The show consists of 10 scenes with 10 songs inspired by popular female artists from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s that give insight into Joan's life at 10 different periods.
"While we focus on her main battle with scleroderma, the show could easily be 10 vignettes from anyone's life," explains musical director Drew Brody. "This is a human story told through the perspective of one person in a poetic way. It's no more about death and dying than life is death and dying."
Derma follows Joan through her first love, marriage, children, and death. "The show can be a metaphor for anyone or anything," Coseglia says. "With the knowledge that you are going to die, what are you going to do with your time here? You have this skin covering your body and soul. How are you going to use it?"
After Grant's initial inspiration a couple of years ago, the trio headed up to the Catskills Mountains for a weekend and wrote the bones of the show. "Everything just came together," says Brody, who wrote the play's music and lyrics. "We've been working together for a long time and were looking for something completely different than we'd done before."
Piccolo is a perfect fit for Derma's debut. Coseglia was introduced to Lowcountry life while performing in a Burning Coal production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties for the 2000 Spoleto Festival. During his time here, Coseglia fell in love with Charleston, James Island, and Folly Beach — so much so that he recently purchased a house out on Folly, where the whole Derma cast will stay for two weeks.
"We want Piccolo Spoleto to be a home base for Derma," Coseglia says. "We want to workshop this show and bring it to festivals."
Coseglia, Grant, and Brody are a tight-knit group. Grant and Brody went to high school together, Grant and Coseglia met at Tisch, and at one point, all three of them lived together in Manhattan, with Coseglia on Grant and Brody's couch. Both Grant and Brody hold positions at Coseglia's legal staffing business, TRU Staffing Partners, Inc. "My professional, personal, and creative lives are extremely interwoven. My real estate agent here in Charleston is a backup singer in Derma," Coseglia laughs.
Like heart, soul, and skin, the friends and co-creators of Derma are looking to unite in an open, nonjudgmental connection with their audience.
"This is not a jukebox musical," says Coseglia. "The reason I fell in love with theater was because of its spirit and emotion. Theater is a temple for me, and this show is catharsis. I believe in the story. I believe in the music. Come to Derma, and leave the theater satisfied. After Derma, you won't need anything else."