Making music for Mark Twain
by Seth Rogovoy
(BENNINGTON, Vt., August 13, 2003) -- Coming of age as a folksinger in the 1960s, Steve Gillette had the same prejudices against the Broadway musical shared by most of his peers. Broadway was part of the phony “establishment” that Gillette and his ilk were trying to overthrow, at least figuratively, by turning their creative energies toward non-commercial forms of art and culture, like folk music.
Gillette has long since come to terms with the “establishment” and commercial music, having written songs for Disney characters like Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo and for real characters like Garth Brooks, Judy Collins, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers and Linda Ronstadt, although he is still best known for writing the modern folk classic “Darcy Farrow,” first made famous by Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia.
And now, having written with his folksinger wife, Cindy Mangsen, the music and lyrics for Oldcastle Theatre Company’s new, musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s novella, “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which opens tonight and runs through September 7 at the Bennington Center for the Natural and Cultural Arts, Gillette has finally come to terms with his ambivalence toward the Broadway-style musical.
“I have a new respect for some of the writing,” said Gillette in a recent E-mail interview, admitting he also warmed to Broadway through Mangsen’s love of the genre.
“As a teenager, I had sheet music for most of them, I knew the songs, and I can still sing most of them by heart,” said Mangsen, a renowned singer of traditional folk songs as well as Gillette’s duet partner, in a recent e-mail interview.
But perhaps more importantly, Oldcastle producing artistic director Eric Peterson, who wrote the adaptation and directed the production, didn’t choose two folksingers expecting them to come up with a batch of songs in the style of Gershwin and Porter.
“I didn’t want to lose what they do best,” said Peterson in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t want them to try to make themselves into something they weren’t. With the musical director [Pittsfield native Jack Aaronson], we took their folk-flavored songs and made them more like theater songs.
“We have a nice balance. This certainly could be called a folk musical, and people who like folk music will like it very much. But people used to the musical theater style will also be very much at home.”
Reaching out beyond the dwindling pool of musical songwriters has been a longtime goal of Peterson’s.
“I’ve thought for a long time that the musical form, if it was going to continue let alone grow, we have to get people from other genres involved in it,” Peterson said.
Hence, Peterson approached Gillette and Mangsen, whose connection to Oldcastle already included their annual Winter Hospice benefit concert at the theater.
But Peterson also believed they came readily equipped with the tools to write a musical. “One of the reasons I thought they would write really well for theater is they’re used to writing about characters and telling stories,” said Peterson.
“In one sense, it’s easier to write these songs,” said Mangsen. “The character, the setting, the mood are all givens. What was difficult was trying to make sure the song added something to the story, and didn’t just reinforce what was already in the dialogue.”
Gillette agrees, saying the songs emerged out of the characters themselves. “In our discussions we’d get a sense of how a character might speak,” he said, “and then we would sit with the guitar or piano and metronome and other writing tools and let the songs develop from a single line or expression or premise. It’s only toward the end of the process that we got into the crossword-puzzle process of reconciling details and fitting music and dance and drama carefully together.”
Stylistically, the songwriters – who had never before collaborated on songs from scratch – tried to remain faithful to the period of time during which the story takes place, approximately 1900. “We thought in terms of Stephen Foster, even a little Scott Joplin -- although most of his characteristic work was a dozen years later or so,” said Gillette. “Also traditional tunes, parlor piano, harmonica, jaw harp – we’ve even got somebody playing the bones. I think we’ve managed to stay centered somewhere around 1900.”
As written by Twain, the story concerns the effects a mysterious stranger has on the previously incorruptible middle American town of Hadleyburg. For dramatic purposes, Peterson added some characters and a love interest.
“It’s about issues like greed and hypocrisy, and there’s a lot of that around so it feels to me very modern,” said Peterson. “It feels like a story that everybody can recognize no matter where they live. Because it’s Twain it has a very American feel.
“We’re talking about an American musical with very American composers. It all just seemed to fit. And it wasn’t a silly story. It’s not really a musical comedy -- it’s a musical play. It’s a confidence man and his attempts to shame this town that in our version did his father wrong.”
The cast includes Billy Taylor as the mysterious stranger, Johnny, and Mindy Dougherty as his young love, Abigail. Richard Howe plays Benton Burgess, the spurned pastor with a past that includes the local schoolmarm, Constance, played by Nan Mullineaux. Abigail’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Richards, are played by Trudi Posey and Phil Lance. Ron Ray and Willy Jones are Mayor Billson and Former Mayor Wilson, respectively. Jack Halliday plays Doug Ryan, and rounding out the cast are Genevieve Freeman and Briana Magnifico.
Performances of “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” are Wednesday through Saturday at 8, Wednesday and Saturday at 2, and Sunday at 3. For reservations or more information call (802) 447-0564.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 15, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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