Dance steps from the studio upstairs perturb office workers on the floor below, springing the musical “Conflict of Interest” into motion.

Conflict fills the lighthearted drama set in 1983. It premieres Friday night at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.

At the story’s heart beats a budding and conflicted love between two college students, the daughters of widowed parents — themselves drawn together amid swirling workplace intrigue.

The show’s opening and two-weekend run is sure to stir Debra Severo’s emotions.

How the musical came to be is a story in of itself and a testament to enduring feelings, collective action and a theater-family ethos.

Severo, of Newburyport, and The Actors Studio of Newburyport ushered the work into production long after the writer, Ellie Lee, died of cancer.

Lee wrote it in 1996. The dramedy showed early promise, getting readings in Boston and at North Shore Music Theatre — but also recognition that the dialogue needed work.

Lee embarked on the changes, her efforts derailed by a cancer diagnosis and, ultimately, her death on July 18, 2009.

Lee and Severo were a couple for 14 years. They met in 1995, a year before Lee completed “Conflict of Interest.”

The couple had visions of retiring in Maine.

“Ellie remains alive in my heart, and when I retired in 2014, I decided to make it my goal to bring Ellie’s masterpiece to a full production,” Severo said.

“It’s our baby,” she said.

Others have rallied around the baby, including Marc Clopton of The Actors Studio and director Anna Smulowitz. And a motivated and enthusiastic cast of performers.

Katie Lowell, 19, of Georgetown, plays Amelia, a college senior who needs tutoring in statistics.

She gets the help from fellow student Blaine, played by Abigail Kaye, 18, of East Berwick, Maine.

Amelia and Blaine discover they have feelings for each other.

They come terms with these feelings in their duet “What are the Odds.”

Lowell, a sophomore at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, said that she loves being a part of this new work and the staging of Lee and Severo’s musical.

“Ellie and Deb’s story is part of what brings me to theater,” she said.

Kaye, a University of New Hampshire theater major, said that the production is timely.

Divisions abound in the populace and political spheres, and theater is a powerful medium for taking on conflict.

“There’s something about seeing live theater — it is raw and real and right before you — characters pouring out their hearts and telling their story,” Kaye said.

Robert McKenzie, 25, of Rowley, who plays the musical’s villain, JD, said that “Conflict of Interest” promotes understanding and entertains.

“This musical does a good job talking about uncomfortable issues,” he said. “At the same time, the play is still lighthearted and charming.”

JD, an eager and bitter employee vying for the company’s vice presidency, tries to undermine the character Arthur’s ascent to the position.

Arthur is Amelia’s father. He and Fran, Blaine’s mom, are co-workers and develop a relationship, which is complicated by workplace politics.

David Draper, of Amesbury, plays Arthur. Amber Barbere, of Newburyport, plays Fran.

“Conflict of Interest’s” hilarity takes flight in a dream scene in Act 1, a riff on the old “Pay the Rent” ditty. 

The dancers in the studio above the office face eviction and bring their feet down as they sing, mockingly (“You must pay the rent, I can’t pay the rent”).

Lee wrote 18 songs for the musical, as well as the lyrics. Severo wrote two songs.

Lee grew up with musicals and graduated with a music degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. She made her living for 33 years crunching numbers for a social research firm.

Severo has played guitar and written music since childhood. She worked as a psychiatric nurse, retiring five years ago.

Severo thinks that Lee was saying through her musical that people can love and know people and find out they are gay and realize, “Oh, they are the same people.”

“Gay people are your sisters, brothers, aunts, cousins, best friends (mothers and fathers sometimes) — people you already love — yet it can change the relationship,” Severo said.

Many people have been rejected by family because of their sexual orientation, she said.

In the song “People Like That,” Lee wanted to convey the hypocrisy, hate and bigotry of people who think they were born with the right to be the judge and jury of other people’s lives, deluded into thinking they’ve got the inside scoop on nature’s plan, Severo said.

If you go

What: “Conflict of Interest”

When: Oct. 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 5, 6 and 13 at 2 p.m.; and Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.

Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport

How much: $25 

More information: 978-462-7336 or

The cast

Newburyport: Amber and Charlotte Barbere, Steve Berger, Molly Bernard, Olivia Gustafson, Will Hopwood, and Lucy Jones

Amesbury: David Draper

Merrimac: Delaney McFarland and Donna Story

Rowley: Robert McKenzie

West Newbury: Peter Nawrocki

Georgetown: Jason Hoover and Katie Lowell

Boxford: Ava Laroche

Auburn, New Hampshire: Shannon Muhs

East Berwick, Maine: Abigail Kaye

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