From time to time, cartoons have provided the musical theatre with inspirationwitness Annie, Li'l Abner and It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's SUPERMAN.
Now Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, is making the transition from strip to stage. The new musical is Kudzu, whose title is taken both from a plant that omnivorously covers the South as well as from the name of the young man whose coming of age the show purports to tell through the sardonic happenings in the mythical town of Bypass, North Carolina.
Marlette has been developing the show about a Japanese corporate takeover of a small Southern town over the last four years with Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson, members of The Red Clay Ramblers, the blue-grass string band who were last seen on Broadway in Fool Moon. As in that show, the group appears onstage in Kudzu, which had readings in New York and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before receiving its first fully staged workshop production, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in June at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut, as part of the new musical program of the Goodspeed Opera House.
Among the cast were Jeff Edgerton, who played the title role, and Kelli Rabke as someone secretly infatuated with him. More productions are planned on the regional circuit, possibly at Duke University, before the production takes its chance in New York.
Marlette, who spends his time between an apartment in New York and a home in Hillsboro, North Carolina, admitted to a certain "trepidation" about breaking into musical theatre, but it's long been a dream since having been smitten by high school and community productions in his native South. He added that his background in cartooning has been very useful. "Both cartoons and musicals are character-driven, and I think of the proscenium as just one big cartoon panel," said the artist just after the workshop had opened. "Both are about distilling and refining the essences, and you have to be very fleet and efficient in how you communicate information. It looks simple, but there's a lot of effort that goes into making it look natural."
What is not similar is the time that it takes to reach a finished product. Marlette observed that he's finished with his cartoons by lunchtime each day, and he sees them in the paper the next morning. Musicals are on "ecclesiastical time; it's a miracle whenever anything actually gets up," he said.
Marlette's sharp political sensibility infects the musical insofar as the teen-aged Kudzu is torn between realizing a windfall of money or holding true to rock-ribbed values of family and community. He also is in pursuit of true love. "In musical theatre, as well as cartoons, you can deal with themes that never change, all the conflicts and contradictions of the human heart," said Marlette, who is married and has a young son. "What is always enduring is the striving for love, power and barbecue sauce." Barbecue sauce?
"Yeah, it's a metaphor for all things good, kind and decent, all that is fine in America," he responded. "We're at a critical juncture in which we are in danger of forgetting who we are, what our true values are. There's no memory and no honoring of the past, no cherishing of the sacrifices that were made. In some way theatre, literature and art exist to keep that memory from being done away by the whims and vagaries of fashion."-- By Patrick Pacheco