Uhry, who created the southern characters of Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Lala and Boo Levy in The Last Night of Ballyhoo and captured the true-life story of Leo Frank in Parade, was approached by En Garde Arts founder Anne Hamburger – now of Big Heart Theatrical – and Emmy Award-winning documentary producer Craig Haffner to adapt Berendt's book for the musical stage.
"I loved the book when I read it," Uhry said in a telephone interview. "I was delighted. I always seem to work on things on instinct, and as soon as Anne called, I said, 'That's a good idea.'"
Hamburger was first brought to the project by Haffner, who produced the well-received A&E documentary "Midnight in Savannah," which took audiences into the real-life world Berendt captured in his book. Haffner, a close friend of Berendt's, said the two had been mulling a future life for the book, which has never been out of print after spending 216 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
"There is the mystique of the South, and John captured the excitement and the allure," Haffner said. "In 1994, the world of prurient reality televsion didn't exist. This book let people descend in on this community with all of its quirks, and rich, wonderful tastes with a very fly-on-the-wall kind of look."
The Savannah-set "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" centers around an "incident" at Mercer House, once owned by the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer, and explores the murder of a young escort named Danny Hansford and his accused murderer, antiques dealer Jim Williams, a closeted gay man, with whom he had a relationship. Among the compelling characters in the work are nightlife entertainer The Lady Chablis, the Voodoo priestess Minerva, and Sonny Seiler, whose bulldogs are the University of Georgia mascots. Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Rob Ashford ( Thoroughly Modern Millie, Evita), who collaborated with Uhry on the acclaimed London production of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, will direct the musical. The creative team is aiming for a fall 2014 out-of-town try-out, either in the U.S. or London. If all goes smoothly, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil could arrive on Broadway in spring 2015, according to Hamburger.
Broadway music director and composer Mark Bennett will supervise the score, which will include the music of Johnny Mercer, "some real Southern rock 'n' roll, some rockabilly and good ole gospel," Uhry said. The action takes place around 1981, so audiences can expect some pop songs of the era as well.
"I thought at first, I have to get an original score," Uhry said. "But it just doesn't seem to suit it. Jim Williams as a character singing seemed like a terrible idea to me. This is not a musical where someone sings their thoughts. There is a character in the book, who I have sort of pushed forward, named Joe Odom, who owns a nightclub and there's a lot of singing going on there."
"We want it to be a very diverse catalogue of music, because the personalities in the book and in Alfred's script are incredibly diverse," Hamburger said. "There's Savannah on the surface and Savannah underneath the surface."
Berendt's book was previously adapted into a 1997 film directed by Clint Eastwood, which received mixed notices. It prominently featured Mercer's music for its soundtrack. The musical's creative team intends to create a complete departure from what film audiences saw.
The allure of Berendt's true-crime book was that it reads like page-turner fiction. "The gossipy funky parts are what make the whole thing work to me. Storytelling is a huge part of southern life," Urhy added. "There's just a bunch of storytellers in that book. Like in all Southern stories, we don't know what's true and what's not - but it doesn't matter. It's a story."
"He's a total raconteur," Hamburger said of Berendt, who has been fully supportive of the project, providing Uhry with audio tapes of Jim Williams and Danny Hansford's voices. "You can see by his personality, you can understand how [John] was able to get all these true stories out of these people. [The stage production] plays into Alfred's love of the South, the heart with which he writes, and his devilish sense of humor."