“OH, I thought it was Playboy,” says Steve Martin when this reporter introduces himself. That a winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor can make you laugh is no surprise. What’s surprising is how subdued and serious Martin can be in person. While unfailingly polite and articulate, he speaks as if the words would prefer to remain in his throat.
In contrast, singer-songwriter Edie Brickell has a voice as light as air. Her face brings a ray of sunshine into the dim light of the Cort Theater as the crew readies for a performance.
Both qualities, light and dark, are evidenced in Bright Star, the new musical written by the pair, referred to as Steve and Edie in a nod to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. “It doesn’t work as Edie and Steve,” Martin deadpans.
Helming the production is Walter Bobbie, a Tony winner in 1997 for best direction of a musical for Chicago—currently the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Bright Star, like Chicago before it, is inspired by a true crime.
“I gasped when I read it,” Bobbie says. Unlike Chicago, though, Bright Star “lacks cynicism. It is about well-intentioned people in conflict ultimately finding resolution.”
Both the idea for the show and the collaboration with Martin came from Brickell, after she found herself seated next to the comedy legend at the dinner parties of mutual friends.
“I always felt like I was the luckiest person,” Brickell effervesces.
“I always think I’m a terrible dinnermate,” Martin mutters.
Brickell, whose country-infused pop reflects her Texas roots, told him she admired “Daddy Played the Banjo,” a song on The Crow, Martin’s first album as a musician. She asked if he wanted to write a song together.
Martin also hails from Texas, but was raised in California, in a home where “it was strictly Mantovani on the radio, essentially elevator music,” Martin recalls. “But in Orange County at that time there was a huge folk music revival led by the Kingston Trio, who used the banjo.” Martin fell in love with the instrument, teaching himself to play by listening to 33 rpm records at 16 rpm so he could pick out the notes.
Martin used the banjo in his 1970s stand-up act—remember him trying to get an audience to sing along to “Ramblin’ Man” in Chinese? He continued for his own enjoyment during his 30-plus-year film career. Then The Crow won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2009 and a music career blossomed, leading to his 2013 album with Brickell. The title track, “Love Has Come for You,” also won a Grammy.
“The imagery just flowed,” Brickell says about writing the album’s lyrics, but there was one tune that Martin wrote that she resisted because it reminded her of a train. “I thought, ‘A bluegrass song about a train—please.’” Once she started researching actual southern trains she came across the Iron Mountain. More importantly, she discovered a true story about a woman named Sarah Jane Helms.
“And I said, ‘I get it, this song is meant to be,’” Brickell says, “because Sarah Jane rhymes with train.”
That song inspired the team to craft a Southern Gothic story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where Martin owns a home. The area, where Thomas Wolfe grew up and where Carl Sandburg died, provided a natural setting for a tale of an aspiring writer and his mysterious editor, played by Carmen Cusack.
The team found Cusack, making her Broadway debut, through a video submission. “You would swear Edie had written it for her voice,” says Bobbie, praising his leading lady. Indeed, Cusack shares a similar timbre with Brickell. During the two-and-a-half hour musical, Cusack ages 22 years and back again in full view of the audience.
The show also marks the Broadway debut of Steve and Edie, though Brickell did experience the ill-fated run of another true-crime inspired musical, The Capeman, written by her husband, Paul Simon. When asked if he gave her advice, she gives a smile: “He said, um… basically… ‘Good luck.’”
Both Martin and Brickell credit director Bobbie for leading successful productions of Bright Star at the Old Globe in San Diego and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“He guided us from the beginning all the way to now,” Brickell says, beaming at Bobbie. “Now it’s so sharp, so full of magic.”
Bobbie returns the compliment. In a Broadway career that dates back over 40 years—he sang “Mooning” in the original cast of Grease—Bobbie marvels at the rarity of creating a truly original musical. “Almost everything you see on Broadway is an adaptation,” he says, “so to watch two artists create a story as well as musicalize a story at the same time is unique.”