Fred Alley, the 38-year-old Wisconsin lyricist, librettist and actor who died suddenly May 1 while running near his Baileys Harbor, WI, home, was felled by a previously undiagnosed heart condition, according to his brother, David.
The co-founder and artist-in-residence of American Folklore Theatre in northern Wisconsin's Door County "rarely allowed himself breaks from his work," according to M. Kaye Christman, general manager of AFT, which staged Alley's musicals for seasonal audiences there. Four of 20 new works Alley helped create subsequently played to sold-out, extended runs at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Alley's non-AFT musical, The Spitfire Grill, with composer James Valcq, will have its Manhattan premiere in fall 2001 at Playwrights Horizons. The humane musical, drawn from the film of the same name, won the American Academy of Arts and Letters prestigious Richard Rodgers Production Award for 2001. He was scheduled to receive the award in person from Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim in the coming weeks. Alley's national profile as a writer was just dawning.
"The occasional run near his home and mountain bike rides in Peninsula State Park were his brief escapes from his many ambitious projects," Christman said in a statement. "Those who ran and biked with him know that he approached these activities with the same intensity he lived the rest of his life. It is fitting that he died on a hilly stretch of road he had conquered many times."
Alley's life in bucolic Door County began in 1980 when, at age 18, he joined the Heritage Ensemble. The Heritage Ensemble went on to become, through the efforts of Alley, Fred Heide and Gerald Pelrine, what is known today as the American Folklore Theatre. In 1991, Alley was appointed co-producer of AFT and was the company's first year-round employee. During his years with AFT, Alley was instrumental in transforming AFT into a professional regional theatre with a growing national reputation, Christman said. He collaborated artistically on over 20 original works and wrote the book and lyrics for many of AFT's most popular shows, including Guys on Ice, Lumberjacks in Love and The Bachelors, all collaborations with composer James Kaplan and director Jeffrey Herbst. The Bachelors is currently playing to sold-out audiences at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. This year would have marked Alley's 20th season of performing on the Peninsula Park stage.
Memorial service arrangements will be announced as soon as possible. The family requests that there be no flowers and instead that donations be made to the Fred Alley Memorial Fund to benefit the American Folklore Theatre New Works Fund. Alley's composer-collaborator James Kaplan and his wife welcomed their first child earlier this week and then found out about Alley's death. "This is certainly the kind of plot element that Fred liked to write," Kaplan said in an e-mail to Playbill On-Line. "Almost all of our shows deal with redemption and reconciliation, and death and dying are woven into many of the shows as well. In The Bachelors, all three characters are poisoned by 'Bad Tuna Fish,' until it [is] revealed that the tuna wasn't that bad after all. One of the musical numbers in Guys On Ice asks, 'What would you do with your last day on earth?'
"Fred was on the top of his game when he died. Our three recent shows are starting to percolate in areas of the U.S. outside of the Midwest, and we have been starting to really imagine that their success could continue to grow in a wonderful way. He just attended auditions for the workshop of Spitfire, and was excited about returning to work on that show with James Valcq. And we have been planning the details of the fall run of The Bachelors, and the Madison Rep production of Guys on Ice this fall. Fred joked that with the New Theatre (Kansas City) production of Lumberjacks in Love, we could sell tickets to the entire trilogy, as long as someone was willing to take a plane to Kansas City.
"Beyond the theatrical success, Fred was moving into a happier, more comfortable time of his life, where his interactions with those around him continued to blossom. He was very devoted to his family, and enjoyed his nieces and nephews immensely. That Fred's life and work centered so much around humor is a great comfort. It's hard to think of him for too long without laughing and grinning."
To view the May 3 Playbill On-Line obituary of Fred Alley, click here.
— By Kenneth Jones