SIOUX CITY -- After writing lyrics for shows about punks ("Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens"), conjoined twins ("Side Show," a 1998 Tony Award nominee), and men who dress up like female beauty contestants ("Pageant"), it's clear that Bill Russell has a unique and, at times, acerbic take on the Great American Musical.
"Rock and folk music were bigger influences on me than show tunes," he said, noting Paul McCartney and John Lennon's "Eleanor Rigby" as an early inspiration.
Raised in Spearfish, South Dakota, and attending Morningside College before transferring to the University of Kansas, Russell has written 14 full-length shows, including his most recent musical, "Unexpected Joy," which was performed in New York and London in 2018.
Russell will be speaking informally about life in the theater during an open-to-the-public event at noon Tuesday in the Hickman Dining Room at Morningside College's Olsen Student Center, 3609 Peters Ave.
He will also be headlining a program entitled "From Sioux City to Broadway and Back Again: An Evening with Bill Russell and Friends" at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Klinger-Neal Theatre, 3700 Peters Ave.
Russell will be joined by singers from Morningside College and Lamb Arts Regional Theatre in performing songs from many of his shows, which include "Up in the Air," "Everything's Ducky" and "The Last Smoker in America."
"Audiences like watching songwriters sing their own songs," he said with a laugh. "It's entertaining to watch songwriters mess up their lyrics as easily as anybody else."
Mostly, Russell wants to clue Great White Way wannabes into what to expect while waiting for their big break.
In a nutshell, don't give up your day job.
"New York is an incredibly expensive city to live in, plus nobody ever gets rich working in the theater," Russell said. "I was able to get by because I was an unusually fast and error-free typist. In the days before computers, I worked for companies whose clientele needed scripts to be typewritten. Among the clients was 'Saturday Night Live.'"
Russell was more than happy to accept any job. After all, he began dreaming of a theatrical career ever since he was a kid growing up in South Dakota.
"Spearfish is a tourist destination and the town would stage these elaborate passion plays, which enlisted some professional actors as well as many local amateurs, he said. "I literally began appearing in passion plays from age 5 all the way up to high school."
Russell attended Morningside for two years before he began looking for summer employment opportunities, which included a position as a waiter and activities director a New Jersey resort.
"This was at the tail end of the Catskills years when vacationers were sick of the same old acts every summer," he explained. "Instead, I put together a 30-minute version of (Stephen Sondheim's) 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' and people loved it."
Russell's East Coast experience was pivotal in two ways. First, he met his longtime friend, arranger and musical director Janet Hood, that summer. Secondly, he had a "Hair"-raising awakening.
"'Hair' was the biggest musical around and I saw it seven times over the course of a two-week period," he said. "I loved it."
The legendary rock musical was all the encouragement Russell needed to finish his education at the University of Kansas before returning to New York.
"While 'Hair' was more of a revue than a musical, I wanted to write shows that stretched the boundaries a bit," he said.
Luckily, Russell found some willing partners, like composer Henry Krieger ("Dreamgirls"), who wrote the music for Russell's "Kept" as well as "Everything's Ducky" and "Side Show."
Even today, he professes to love The Beatles and the rock musicals that brought him to the theater.
However, Russell is gaining an appreciation for more traditional music men like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ("Oklahoma!" "The Sound of Music") in addition to Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls").
"Some people mistake popular with simplistic," he said. "Nothing Loesser did was ever simple."
Even though New York has been his home for decades, Russell has always maintained his Midwestern roots.
"It's fun to see the people I grew up with," he said. "They helped shape me and were the ones who encouraged my love of theater."