Fred Alley, the lyricist and book writer for the Richard Rodgers Award-winning musical, The Spitfire Grill, a show expected for Playwrights Horizons in fall 2001, died unexpectedly in Door County, WI, May 1, apparently while jogging, according to colleagues in the Wisconsin theatre community.
Mr. Alley went jogging after work May 1 and his body was found by construction workers May 2. An autopsy will determine the cause of death.
A lyricist-librettist and actor who has enjoyed huge success at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre with four musicals, including the current sold-out hit, The Bachelors, Mr. Alley was on the brink of national exposure with his well-received musical stage version of The Spitfire Grill, based on the film of the same name.
The new musical, with music by James Valcq, who shared libretto credit with lyricist Mr. Alley, had its premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in late fall 2000 and generated immediate critical and audience buzz. In February 2001, The Spitfire Grill shared honors with Leon Ko and Robert Lee's Heading East as winners of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2001 Richard Rodgers Awards for musicals.
George Street artistic director David Saint, who staged Spitfire Grill in New Jersey, will direct the Off-Broadway debut of the show at Playwrights Horizons in fall 2001. The Manhattan-based Playwrights Horizons confirmed May 3 that Spitfire will indeed open the fall season. Mr. Alley was co-founder and artist-in-residence at American Folklore Theatre, a popular seasonal theatre in northern Door County, WI, where he cooked up hit regional-accented musicals with composer James Kaplan, director Jeffrey Herbst and others. The shows would enjoy sensational success moving to the Stackner Cabaret and Stiemke Theater, venues of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Guys on Ice, a comic tuner about ice fisherman, was a Rep smash in November 1998 and returned in February 1999, November 1999 and November 2000. Mr. Alley also acted in Guys On Ice, as he had in its world premiere in 1998 in Door County. The first show by Mr. Alley and his collaborators at the Rep was the Weavers-inspired Goodnight Irene in January 1997. Lumberjacks in Love (in which Mr. Alley also had a role) played the Rep's Stiemke Theater in April 2000 and the current show, The Bachelors, began at the Stackner in March 2001.
Milwaukee Rep public relations manager Annie Jurczyk told Playbill On-Line that theatre people in Wisconsin "can't help but compare" the loss of Mr. Alley to the loss of rising playwright Larry Shue, who died prematurely in a plane crash just as The Foreigner and The Nerd were cementing his career. "Larry was 39, Fred was 38," she said. "We are all just saddened."
The Bachelors, by Mr. Alley and composer James Kaplan, focuses on a couple of thirtysomething guys who share a place in Madison, WI, one of the great American college towns. John and Stew "spend most of their time lounging around in their boxer shorts and tee shirts, until their world is shattered by a delivery girl from Pizza Pit," according to production notes. The show is set in 2001, but there is a prologue that takes place in Victorian England and features a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, "Be a Bachelor." The show also features a "Dream Ballet," and a Bossa Nova-style Entr'acte.
The Bachelors has a story by Mr. Alley and James Kaplan, with book and lyrics by Mr. Alley, and music by Kaplan. Their shows usually premiere in Door County before coming downstate, but this is a rare Alley-Kaplan world premiere in Milwaukee. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel theatre critic Damien Jaques embraced The Bachelors in a review.
Regional productions of Lumberjacks in Love and Guys On Ice are booked.
In New Jersey, performances of The Spitfire Grill began Nov. 25, 2000 with an opening Nov. 29. The title is the name of a restaurant, where the no-nonsense owner, Hannah (played by Beth Fowler), and a former women's prison inmate, Percy (Garrett Long), trying to start over develop a friendship — and a contest.
Mr. Alley's comic sensibility is reflected in his titles and subject matter. Lumberjacks in Love, for example, takes place at Haywire Camp in Hayward, WI, around 1900. It's the kind of environment where bath time is once a month and a blast of dinner horn brings the boys running. The musical features characters named Muskrat, Moonlight and Dirty Bob, who meet a mail order bride named Rose.
American Folklore Theatre productions originate at the company's home in Door County, WI, a resort area 3-1/2 hours north of Milwaukee. Lumberjacks was first seen there in 1995 and has became the company's biggest hit. Four new songs were added to the subsequent Rep staging.
Spitfire composer Valcq and Mr. Alley have been friends since high school. They had collaborated once before on an American Folklore Theatre show called The Passage, about immigrants.
Of the "Spitfire" film, Mr. Alley told writer Simon Saltzman: "It had all the elements of a great folk tale with magical qualities and with strong archetypal characters."
Mr. Alley said he related to the rural people, having grown up in a small town not unlike that in the film. Although the movie is set in rural Maine, Valcq and Mr. Alley moved the action to Wisconsin, a landscape they know. It was the "mystical qualities" of the film and the "lyrical possibilities in the language" that Alley says instantly appealed to him.
Mr. Alley told writer Saltzman, in a feature that appeared on Playbill On-Line last fall, the goal of his work on Spitfire was for "honest self-expression and to keep it lyrical." He and Valcq said despite some of their more outrageous titles and shows, they are not cynical writers.
Mr. Alley attended the University of Wisconsin. He was not married.