Songs From the Tall Grass, a new musical theatre work opening its world premiere March 19 at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., harvests the stories of America's plains states homesteaders to give voice to a forgotten chapter in history.
The new show continues to June 3 at the historic Ford's Theatre, a building that would have been known (as the place where Lincoln was shot) to the homesteaders and farmers of 19th century territories or states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana.
The writing team of Michael Ross, Phoef Sutton, Emily Corey and Randy Hale uses revised versions of real folk songs, plus letters, journals and Native American poetry to dramatize the lives and music of the men, women and children who settled in the prairies — America's heartland.
Beginning in 1997, California writers Hale and Corey, husband and wife, explored the songs of the people of the prairies by visiting museums, libraries, state historical societies and small back-road museums with their children on family outings. The outings were prompted by native Oklahoman Hale's curiosity about lost songs from the era of the homesteader.
The trip was prompted, Corey says, out of "artistic curiosity" and "family history." Corey explains, "His great grandparents would sit around at night, and their entertainment would be his great grandfather pulling out the fiddle and great grandmother playing the pump organ." Hale and Corey wanted to know what the people of the prairies were singing — what Hale's people sang.
Following their research, Corey and Hale recorded a two-disc set of songs, using new music written by Hale, who also adapted some of the lyrics. "We were so taken by the language of the lyrics," Corey said of the faded songbooks and piano vocal sheets they discovered. Many of the songs were written for singing conventions, local groups, churches or commissioned by The Grange.
The songs on the recording and in the show include such arcane Americana as "Stay on the Farm," "A Hundred Years From Now," "Home on the Prairie," "Brave Old Plow," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "It Never Pays to Fret and Growl," "Home on the Range," "The Boll Weevil," "Hazel Dell," "Do Not Mortgage the Farm," "Put My Little Shoes Away" and more. Hale also wrote one original song, "Once Was a Pioneer."
Is Songs From the Tall Grass art or history?
"We have never presented ourselves as folklorists," Corey cautions. "Our desire was to bring these old ideas, which had not been sung in a long time, into the light. We tried to do it with as much respect as possible. We tried very hard to not dumb it down, to give it as much grace and character as possible. We wanted to bring history alive in a respectful and graceful way, and we wanted people to be entertained."
The music credits for Songs From the Tall Grass read: Music and lyrics by Randy Hale (lyrics derived form original source material).
Composer Hale is always looking for material to turn into a musical, said Corey, and when they dug up the rich cultural soil, they thought the songs were right not just for a recording, but for the stage. After penning several drafts of a script, they enlisted friends Ross and Sutton (veteran TV writers with "Cheers," "Designing Women" and other shows in their credits).
Corey, a California native, is co-founder (with husband Hale) of History Through Music, an organization that teaches American history through music-based curriculums. Hale, an Oklahoma native, was trained as an actor and has composed music for computer games.
"While much has been done to revive the musical traditions of Appalachia, the Eastern Seaboard, the Ozarks and the South, the songs that were sung in the soddies, the prairie schoolhouses, two-room homesteads and at barn socials on the Great American prairie in the 19th-century have been all but lost," Ford's Theatre producing artistic director Frankie Hewitt said in a statement, suggesting why the organization — devoted to American voices — was keenly interested.
Will Mackenzie (who helmed Off-Broadway's I Do! I Do! starring Karen Ziemba) directs a company that includes Tony Award-winner Scott Waara (Broadway's Most Happy Fella) as the narrator, with John Antony, Cliff Bemiss, Teri Bibb, Emilyann Cummings, Tiffany Fraser, Johanna Gerry, Josh Hawkins, Kathleen Kulikowski, Celine Massuger, James Soller, Christopher Winsor and John Leslie Wolfe.
Kay Cole choreographs. Designers are David Sackeroff (set), David Zyla (costumes), Tom Ruzika (lighting) and Eliane McCarthy (projections).
Tickets range $27-$43. Ford's Theatre is at 511 Tenth Street in Washington DC. For information, call (202) 347 4833.
— By Kenneth Jones