The year is 1906, and President Theodore Roosevelt is taking a trip on a Navy battleship to visit the Panama Canal. Unbeknownst to him, he is being tracked by a muckraking reporter and an unhinged anarchist, both plotting against him on this trip.

“Panama” is a play that imagines this scenario taking place on the very real Panama visit made by Roosevelt in 1906. Dr. Stephen Michelman, professor of philosophy, was inspired to write the play after coming across a New York Times headline that reads: “President at Panama; Anarchists Under Arrest; Precautions Taken to Insure Mr. Roosevelt’s Safety.”

“They basically put people in jail who they thought would be troublemakers,” Michelman says. “That was the kernel of an idea: I’ll have a character who’s an anarchist, but who doesn’t quite get rounded up.”

Michelman began the writing project in 1995 and picked it back up during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During COVID, the play was a lifeline of creative energy for me. It kept me motivated,” he says.

Michelman collaborated with an old friend from New York, composer Steven Belfer, who initially approached him with the idea of writing a musical.

“The music is really remarkable, full of harmonic complexity and nods to classic scores like Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Westside Story,’” Michelman says.

Michelman co-wrote the music to the show’s opening number and to another character song. Many of the show’s songs take on a Latin sound to reflect the setting of the play.

“I’ve played music since I was 12,” Michelman says. “I’m a self-taught jazz guitarist. “I’ve dabbled in song writing over the years, but I’d never written lyrics for a musical until this project. It’s a very specialized craft.”

Rounding out the artistic design of the play is Michelman’s daughter, Isabella Goodchild-Michelman, who completed the artwork for the project, including the official poster.

While Michelman hopes the musical will expand in popularity outside of Spartanburg, he also would like to see Wofford Theatre perform the show one day.

The debut performances, directed by Rich Buckley, will be at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center (JCC) in East Hills, New York, on Nov. 11 and 12 at 2 p.m. More information about the musical, including ticket sales, cast list and character profiles, can be found on its Facebook page here.

After dedicating years to writing the play, Michelman says it’s inspiring to see the characters come to life on stage. He also says “Panama” won’t be his last production.

“I’m ready to try something new,” he says. “We’ll see what direction that takes.”