What's a serious composer like Robert Maggio doing in a phone-sex musical at Arden?

Philadelphia audiences know these names: Composer Robert Maggio has written for the Crossing choir and Pennsylvania Ballet over the last 20 years, and playwright Michael Hollinger periodically delivers well-made dramas to the Arden Theatre stage.

The new kink is that the two are coauthors in the forthcoming TouchTones, a musical about phone sex set in 1999, when anonymous, fantasy-filled connections raised new questions about what constitutes fidelity. It opens Oct. 25 at the Arden Theatre’s smaller, upstairs Arcadia space, in an unlikely marriage between two semi-highbrow creators and the steamy world they portray.

The idea was initially inspired by a doctoral dissertation on the subject. As first envisioned some 13 years ago by Hollinger and Maggio, the story had the darker overtones of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Death was in the plot. It arrives today in a lighter version — closer to a sex farce.

The whole thing, though, was nearly killed by the evolution of sex cams and phone apps. Phone sex agencies are said to still exist, but their decline is foreseen as the TouchTones characters sing at the beginning of Act II, “Sex ain’t what it used to be.”

“Now, [phone sex] is a metaphor for … how technology is going to change the way we seek intimacy,” said Hollinger, 55, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics.

“Phone sex is just the playground. … This is about connection, intimacy, love, sex, and identity,” said Maggio, 53. “You want audiences to enter a world that’s something they haven’t seen before.”

Camera icon (Photo by Mark Garvin)
Composer Robert Maggio (left) and Playwright Michael Hollinger on the set of TouchTones, at the Arden Theatre Company through December 3, (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Somehow, the whole phenomenon escaped the notice of mainstream theater, with the possible exception of the 1994 Broadway show The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, with its infamous production number featuring phone sex operators in Plexiglas cubes. TouchTones is more realistic. Operators report for work in a remarkably mundane office with desks and fluorescent light.

The music is partly prompted by the fantasies spun by the phone-sex workforce. Gauging matters of taste accounts in part for the show’s 13-year gestation. “Where’s the line between fascination, titillation, and revulsion?” asked Hollinger. “At times, we crossed the line [in earlier versions of the show].”

“In some songs … the [workshop] audience, went, ‘Eeeeww,’ ” said Maggio. “The more graphic we got, the less appealing it became. The more we went into fantasy and metaphor, the more interesting it was.”

The TouchTones story focuses on a young Christian girl who has vowed to stay chaste until married but who discovers one day that her boyfriend, who is even more devoted to that vow than she, has been phoning somebody named Mercedes — and it’s not an automobile. The story ends up in a similar place as the operas Marriage of Figaro and Die Fledermaus and the musical She Loves Me!, in which people rediscover each other through the power of disguise.

But when the TouchTones authors got stuck with this tricky musical plotting, they looked back to past musicals rather than operas, often taking cues from the ultra-wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein. When a big number was needed for the second act, they looked to Carousel‘s “(This was) A Real Nice Clambake” and came up with “Sex Ain’t What it Used to Be.” “It’s not that there is a formula, but there are forms you can learn from,” Hollinger said.

Camera icon Mark Garvin
The cast of TouchTones. The creators looked to classics like “Carousel” for an assist with the tricky musical plotting. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

If they seem more like researchers than participants, it’s that neither Maggio nor Hollinger — both married with families — have ever made one of those 900-number calls. Hollinger warned his wife that he might have to — but didn’t. Maggio said, “I could never bring myself to do that.” But they worked with phone-savvy cast members who told them when they were on or off track. Even so, they had no idea that one of the lyrics — referring to “50 shades of white” — had sly parallels to the best-selling S&M book Fifty Shades of Grey.

Luckily, musical theater was far less foreign territory to them. Independent of each other, Maggio and Hollinger wrote and produced their own musicals as undergraduates, Maggio at Yale and Hollinger at Oberlin.

A trained violist, Hollinger went on to write three more, two of which never were produced and one that had the briefest of shelf lives. He went on to write a series of nonmusical plays, such as Opus and Tooth and Claw.

Maggio wrote incidental music to two dozen Shakespeare plays for Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays and any number of concert and serious theater works, such as Into the Light and Le Travail. But at 40, he decided to get back to musicals by taking the famous BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York. In the midst of that, he and Hollinger began working together — despite geographical challenges.

Maggio teaches at West Chester University but lives in Lambertville, N.J. Hollinger lives in Elkins Park but teaches at Villanova University. They love brainstorming in the same room with a piano and fixing each other lunch. But a lot of the work sessions took place over Skype and FaceTime. And there were a lot of work sessions when they were faced with either salvaging a show about increasingly antiquated technology or keeping up to date, which would have been a very different story, since modern sex apps often intersect with a much darker world of street drugs.

Were it an opera, the show would have been finished long ago. In that world, the librettist writes and the composer composes with plenty of interaction, but not to the extent of a musical. Musical theater may seem more lightweight, but the process is beyond rigorous. “In opera, people will say, ‘I’ll sit through this boring half hour to get to this amazing aria that’s coming up.’ In musical theater, you have to be constantly hitting your mark. You want every damn song to be awesome,” Maggio said.

Even awesomeness isn’t enough. Often, the two would come up with a great song that was simply wrong for the character. They estimate  they wrote enough music for three shows. The big song for the lead phone sex operator — a guy named Brad — went through 10 versions. “We could do an entire evening of Brad songs,” Maggio said.

Hollinger’s imprint is unmistakable in TouchTones, which is theatrically substantial as “book musicals” go. The surprise may come from  Maggio, who is by no means abandoning concert music, as genre differences ain’t what they used to be.

Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill before him had success on both sides of the Broadway/classical fence. Not that it’s easy. “I knew that … their musical vocabulary was both expansive and direct enough to work in both worlds,” Maggio observed. “It’s extremely challenging … to have a language that’s vernacular and immediately digestible. Audiences have to get it on the first time, unlike a cello sonata.”

Though some songs have operatic intensity, the score is now something that even the authors’ children would have no problem taking in. Question is, would their parents want them to?

“My daughter is 16. She’s old enough to see the show,” Maggio said. “I’ll tell her a bit about it beforehand. In its heart, the show is in a PG-13 place.”

“My daughter is 12,” Hollinger said, “and I told her about the subject and that she’s not going to see it.”

They may be underestimating adolescent street smarts. Terrence J. Nolen, Arden’s producing artistic director, discovered that his teenage son Flynn had found his way into one of the workshop performances. The reaction was nonchalant: “I’ve seen Les Miz — this was OK.”

TouchTones

Performances through Dec. 3 at the Arden Theatre's Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd St.

Tickets: $15-52.

Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.