When the farmhouse unit that stayed in a perpetual spin all night long at the Cort Theatre spun around for the final time March 24, it revealed the brightest stars of Bright Star—the two Texans who created the show in the first place: Steve Martin, pretending to hold on for dear life as if he were on a midway ride, and Edie Brickell.
It’s a common occurrence for creatives to take curtain-call bows with their cast, but this time was different. Somebody remembered to bring his banjo, and so while Martin plucked away in a state of self-contained bliss, Brickell led the cast one more time in a rousing reprise of the show’s big feel-good anthem, “Sun’s Gonna Shine.”
Martin and Brickell are Broadway newbies: Martin even performed at the Gotham Hall after-party with a bluegrass group, once he had gone through the mandatory press grilling. Jaded first-nighters found such good will and Southern hospitality unique and refreshing.
While making the press rounds, Martin of Waco and Brickell of Big D were asked by a journalist from a little burg in between, “Did you ever imagine on your opening night on Broadway that you would be interviewed by somebody from Greenville, TX?” She laughed with delighted surprise; Martin, not so much. “Actually, I did imagine that,” he shot back with the deadest of pans, “and you are my dream come true.”
Agrarian roots come in handy when you are writing the book, lyrics and music for a show like Bright Star. It’s a folksy saga with an extreme plot twist even silent movies would have been ashamed to try to get away with but happens to be based on fact.
Brickell stumbled across it on line when she and Martin were collaborating on an album. “Steve sent me a composition, and there was one particular part where I heard myself singing, ‘Wooo! Wooo!’ in the melody—you know, like a train—and I thought, ‘Bluegrass train! I’ll give it a shot.’” So she went to Google: Names of Southern Trains. “The very first one that caught my eye was the Iron Mountain, and, when you click on Iron Mountain, it offers the story of the Iron Mountain baby,” she remembered. “I thought, ‘What a miracle!’ and then I thought, ‘What a musical!’”
Martin concurred. “I’m from Texas, but I left when I was five. I have roots in North Carolina. Edie and I wrote this beautiful song called ‘Asheville’—she wrote the lyrics for it—and we wanted to put that song in the show. It was a natural setting for us, but we needed to work out things like ‘Where would a train be running in 1923?’ ‘Where would there be mountains and towns far apart?’ And a story started forming.”
On the first Martin-Brickell album, there is indeed a song called “Iron Mountain Baby,” which tells of an infant found in a suitcase beside the railroad tracks of the Iron Mountain line. How it got there, if it was thrown from the train or just left there, who the biological parents were—none of that was determined, but the child was adopted in the area. He was never identified, but the name of the mother made it into their song: “Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane / Be a mama to the boy from the train.”
“I’d heard of the event of the Iron Mountain baby,” admitted the musical’s director, Walter Bobbie. “The fiction that Steve created around it, frankly, has changed since we first did it. Certain characters and songs have come and gone. He took an actual event that happened, I believe, in 1904, and he wrote a ‘What if?’ story around it. It was just wonderful watching him and Edie create a possible scenario from this really shattering, horrible event and to have it come to a happy resolution.”
The result is that rarity among Broadway musicals—an original, in the purest sense of the word. “We almost never get to do original material in the theatre—it’s always adapted, from Oklahoma! to My Fair Lady—so to get to be in the room with someone who’s also a novelist and watch him fabricate a fiction while this gorgeous poet is writing songs that fulfill the character is different from any job that I have ever had. It’s truly unique when you never know exactly just where the story is going.”
As you may have gathered, a Mutual Admiration Society has formed among the three. “The process of a musical takes up so much time, but you have to make sure you want to be in the room with the people who are creating it,” Bobbie said. “I flew out to L.A. and spent two days with Steve, just talking, discussing what I thought would probably need to happen. Then, Edie came over one day, and we talked more.
“These people are natural collaborators. They’re so open-minded. They weren’t afraid of the hard questions. They weren’t afraid of learning what they didn’t already know, yet, as artists, they brought such fresh, original breath to the work.”
For the second time this season, an unknown with West End cred has come over and made a devastating Broadway debut in the star spot. Like Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple, Carmen Cusack shoulders most of her musical’s emotional and vocal demands. Both play characters dealing with interrupted motherhood over decades.
“The role has got its challenges, but I don’t find it difficult,” Cusack confessed a bit embarrassed to say so in light of the heavy-duty dramaturgy she’s put through. “I just try to stay in the moment and let the emotions of the scene take me with them.”
Her neatest trick is convincingly tightrope-walking between the show’s two time-zones (1945 and 1923) and looking at home in both. “That’s what I enjoy the most. Maybe I’m a schizophrenic at heart, but I really do love going back and forth.”
She makes her first transition with a song called “Way Back in the Day” when the past comes forth to grab her and pull her back. It may remind some of Jessica Tandy when she suddenly danced like a schoolgirl in Foxfire and the years flew away.
“That’s my favorite number in the whole show,” beamed choreographer Josh Rhodes, whose major emphasis was in researching Appalachian flatfoot dancing and then applying it to the songs at hand. “I created a style within this that we used,” he said. “There’s a lot of scooting back to make a sound on the dirt or the wood. If you pay attention, you’ll see the essence of the flatfoot dancing inspiring the movement.”
The Martin-Brickell songs were a dream to animate. “They actually write the way John Kander writes. These are people who write space. There is actual space in their music. They allow a singer to sing a beautiful, poetic line, and then there’s room, and they say something else. Even though they don’t come from musical theatre, they write in a more classic style where the singer is just on stage singing. The songs take their time the way songs used to in the ‘50s. That’s what I love about their music.”
Peter Asher, one of the major movers and shakers in music business today, shepherded the score to market. “I produced the albums the show is inspired from,” he said, and then, when they had the idea of turning them into a musical, I’ve been their music supervisor, contributing whatever I could to how the music was played.
“Everything’s a collaboration. Most recently, I just finished producing the cast album. It’s amazing. I think it’ll be out in a month. I just finished it night before last.”
Paul Alexander Nolan, who has done three shows in New York in the past 11 months (Doctor Zhivago, Daddy Long Legs and now this one), plays Cusack’s decade-spanning love interest. “I’ve loved this role since I first read it. He’s an open-hearted guy. There’s nothing contrived about him. The older version of him is harder to like. He has lived in loss for so long he’s a ghost of himself, and that’s what’s tragic about him. I like that as an actor because it’s something that’s so contrasting to what I’ve done already. Playing my scenes with Carmen are really interesting for that reason.”
Heading up the second storyline that is woven into the plot is A.J. Shively, playing a returning World War II vet who takes up writing under Cusack’s tutelage.
Michael Mulheren, who once brushed up his Shakespeare to Tony-nominated effect, won’t get a lot of Father’s Day cards with this performance and bothers to act shocked when he draws hisses at the curtain call. “On stage,” he said, “this is one of the most fulfilling roles I’ve ever done—thank you, Steve Martin. My character is a human who does some inhuman things. He makes a colossally bad decision, as his son says at one point, but, when I make that bad decision, it’s for my son.”
The actors who have been with the show since the get-go both play fathers and are both named Stephen—Stephen Bogardus and Stephen Lee Anderson. “Walter said an interesting thing when we were developing the show,” Anderson recalled. He said, ‘These are good people who are dealing with a difficult situation badly.’”
Anderson is the only person in the cast who was also in The Capeman, the 1998 musical written by Brickell’s husband, Paul Simon. “I do all the Simons,” he cracked.
Simon, by the way, observed the opening-night festivities from the second-balcony of Gotham Hall, peering down from the marble pillars and looking from afar a little like Nero in a fedora. (He didn’t want to upstage his wife’s big night.)
Bogardus remembered who entered the project third. “Carmen came on in the summer of 2013. When she walked into the room, you knew you had the center of your show. We’re the only three left from going up to New York Stage & Film and doing it as a two-week workshop. Everybody else has come aboard at various times.
“It’s been nice to see how the piece has matured. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are just seasoned veterans, but this is an art form they’ve never tackled before, and they did it with such openness and willingness to rewrite scenes, let go of great material for the better of the whole. I’m honored to have been a part of it, and it’s dear to me.”