Floridians have mythologized Publix. The supermarket is celebrated for its Pub Subs, chicken tenders, sappy commercials and catchy slogans.
The real magic of Publix – at least according to one high school in Lakeland, Florida – can be traced to founder George Jenkins and his legacy of treating his company like a family. Faculty and students from the Harrison School for the Arts took that spirit and made it into a musical, titled “When You Dream.”
Harrison’s version of the Publix origin story begins in the late 1920s. Jenkins, who was managing a Piggly Wiggly store in Winter Haven, went to visit the owner in Atlanta.
Jenkins never got a meeting, describing the day to his mom, played by senior Audrey Fisher.
“They wouldn’t even talk to you,” she says.
“No! I could hear him in his office talking about golf,” says freshman Matthew Werd, playing Jenkins. “I can’t work for a company that treats people like that. Maybe I’ll start my own store or something.”
Fisher then belts out the opening number “When You Dream.” A piano instrumental complements a moving ballad that launches the audience into a seemingly timeless, peppy homage to Publix’s customer-first culture that has lasted nearly 90 years.
The creators didn’t intend to make a biography. The show proceeds with a series of vignettes of Jenkins’ dedication to his employees and the impact he had on the community.
“I wanted to write about the influence he had,” says Daryl Ward, principal of Harrison. “I started breaking that down. What are the kinds of people he helped? Well, he helped his employees, so I wrote a song about that. He also helped people he didn’t know he was helping, so I wrote a song about that.”
About two years ago, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce approached Ward about having the school honor Jenkins’ legacy in a creative way. Jenkins lived in Lakeland most of his life, and Publix is headquartered there.
Ward pitched a musical.
“When we were brainstorming, I was tossing out different ideas. I said, ‘You know what? I can write a musical,' ” recalls Ward, who has a background in writing. “The people at the table laughed. I said, ‘No, I’m serious. I think I can.’ ”
Ward penned a 30-minute story and lyrics for five songs. Ironically, the word “Publix” is never mentioned in the script.
“Publix was quite clear. They didn’t want it to be this great Publix commercial,” he says.
The supermarket still features prominently on stage. Suzi Lambert, one of the show’s directors and a voice teacher at Harrison’s musical theater department, took students on a field trip to a local Publix to collect props.
“We grabbed grocery carts, shopping baskets and milk crates to create these dances and moments,” she says.
In one memorable scene, a grocery cart ballet swirls around Jenkins during the reggae-inspired number “Good People.” Students wearing black aprons with the Publix logo push shopping carts while interacting with an ensemble of community members.
“As the musical develops, you really can’t tell the difference between the employees and the community,” Lambert says. “They merge together.”
Ward enlisted his own “good people” – a cast and crew drawn from several Harrison departments, from chorus to dance to jazz to musical theater. The composer, Tyler Campbell, came from neighboring Lakeland High School, where he teaches English.
Ward gave Campbell some specific references for the songs. The gospel number “Be There” had to feel like “‘Newsies’ but with bag boys,” and “Good People” channeled Bob Marley.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Stephen Sondheim, who says, ‘Content dictates form,’ ” Campbell says. “I really took that to heart when I started writing these songs.”
The musical had its first run in January for an event hosted by the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. The school performed the show again in April.
Freshman Matthew Werd understudied for the first production and officially got the role when his predecessor graduated from Harrison. Werd says he’s relatively new to musical theater and was honored Ward had selected him for the show.
“As a freshmen doing this role, it really helped me see how to go about things and how these upperclassmen prepare,” Werd says.
Werd says one of the main challenges was not being able to work from past performances while balancing a Lakeland audience’s expectations.
“When I go and say, ‘And the best way to do that is to be there,’ everyone who is involved with Publix is going to know,” he says.
Playing Jenkins has made Werd view the supermarket differently.
“I see all the impact he had on everyone who’s working there. Everyone’s always smiling. Everyone’s always trying to help others. All that comes from the philanthropic legacy of George Jenkins,” he says.
That legacy continues to thrive. Publix wins top marks for customer satisfaction, according to its website. FORTUNE has included the supermarket in its list of “100 Best Companies To Work For.” The store is one of the largest contributors worldwide to United Way.
Principal Ward sums up Jenkins' story in a pithy joke.
“What a bad decision for Piggly Wiggly,” Ward says.
There is a soundtrack for "When You Dream," the musical inspired by Publix. You can't buy it at Publix or anywhere else. It's archived at the Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland.