The June 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Writing a Musical About Silicon Valley? Start with Robert Noyce, Add a Dash of Marissa Mayer

Playwright picks Robert Noyce to be the conscience of a female founder as he sets Silicon Valley to song in "Venture"

3 min read

Robert Noyce (played by Jesse Wilen), advises fictional entrepreneur Saira Sidona (Sofia Peterson) in Venture, a new musical about Silicon Valley.
Robert Noyce (played by Jesse Wilen), advises fictional entrepreneur Saira Sidona (Sofia Peterson) in Venture, a new musical about Silicon Valley.
Photo: Rob Wilen

Five years ago Michael Najar set out to write his second full-length musical. His first, Love Songs in Traffic, focused on Los Angeles, where he grew up. He knew that his second would be about Silicon Valley—as a 2002 transplant, he found the culture often fascinating, and sometimes baffling.

“I started dating someone who said she worked at Cisco,” he recalled. “I immediately thought Sysco? The food trucking company? And she made more money in a month than I do in a year—I had to rethink everything.”

But where to start? Najar was stumped. Until he read The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin.

“Robert Noyce was a sort of ‘Mad Men’ character,” Najar says. “He was great looking, he was an athlete, he was charming—he was everything you could want from a male character in a musical. But also, he was something that’s missing in the tech world today: He was very humble.”

As he delved into Noyce more, Najar says, he “realized that, though not many people knew him personally, he was beloved. I watched a video of his memorial service—it was kind, loving. He crossed political lines—Carter, Reagan, and the first Bush all gave him medals.”

All that—the way he crystallized the past and contrasted with today—made Noyce a great character. But there was one more thing that clinched the deal for Najar.

“He was a Madrigal singer,” says Najar. “He truly loved Renaissance choral music.” That’s one of Najar’s passions as well, so, Najar says, “I thought this character was truly speaking to me.”

Around the time Najar was studying Robert Noyce, a more recent Silicon Valley luminary, Marissa Mayer, was hitting the news. She’d been named CEO of Yahoo and then immediately announced that she was six months pregnant.

That, said Najar, “was an incredibly operatic moment—rivaling my favorite opera, Nixon in China.”

With the idea of a powerful and pregnant tech woman of the present whose path somehow connects with Robert Noyce, Najar was ready to write a musical that’s about Silicon Valley—but not just that.

“The best analogy I can make is to the musical Rent—it’s not just about the ’90s and the AIDS epidemic; it is simply about love and relationships. This is about the struggles that make us human—with the background of Silicon Valley.”

The result is Venture, a musical that centers around Saira Sidana, the eventually pregnant founder of a struggling startup with a team of female-only development engineers, whose focus on her company is causing relationship stress at home.

Playbill for the theater production VentureMichael Najar workshopped his new musical with students at Palo Alto High School, a.k.a. Paly. By tradition, the school’s playbills are “Palybills”.Image: Collin Stone

“Bob Noyce,” says Najar, “had that hard time, when he would sit in the parking lot at Intel and not go home to face the family.”

Sidana also deals with sexist CEOs, a rebellious digital assistant, and her company’s financial struggles—and along the way encounters the spirit of Noyce at the Computer History Museum. Noyce follows her throughout the second act as sort of a chain-smoking Jiminy Cricket—the conscience of Silicon Valley (a theatrical device that works surprisingly well).

When he’s not buried in Silicon Valley history books or musical notes, Najar teaches at Palo Alto High School. So getting a cast to workshop his musical was easy—he recruited students. That production ran for two weekends earlier this month.

The students were game—but faced a unique challenge. In student productions, students are usually emulating the adult actors from previous productions. In a workshop, though, actors have to create the characters, and it’s not so easy for students to create adult characters from scratch.

This summer, Najar plans to continue workshopping the production, this time with adults, and then hopes to have it picked up by a professional theater company.

Want to know more about the people, places, and peculiarities of Silicon Valley? Sign up for the biweekly “View from the Valley” newsletter here. (Scroll to the bottom of the list, it’s the last option.)

The Conversation (0)