Ruth Bauer on Bringing New Musical The War Dept. to the O'Neill

Playbill.com's embedded reporter Ademola Bello reports from the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. 

Ruth Bauer
Ruth Bauer

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The War Dept., a new musical about rebuilding America after the Civil War, began workshop readings at the O’Neill National Music Theater Conference June 28.

The War Dept. features libretto, music and lyrics written by Jim Bauer, winner of the 2014 O’Neill Music Theater Conference Georgia Bogardus Holof Award. The libretto, art and video direction of The War Dept. were written by Ruth Bauer, who also collaborated with her husband Jim on the book of another musical called The Blue Flower. Melia Bensussen a recipient of an Obie award for outstanding direction, directs the workshop. 

"The American Civil War has ended, but the task of cleaning up the mess – and trying to make sense of it all – has only just begun," press notes state. "That work falls in large part to the eccentric savant Private William T. Clarke working in an obscure and mysterious division of The War Department, sorting through mountains of records housed now in Ford’s Theater, dark since Lincoln’s assassination there three years before. Clarke, fighting demons of his own, finds his strange and insular domain invaded by three visitors in the same day, each looking desperately for something precious lost in the war. Unfortunately, Clarke may be the only person who can help them, and the war may not be over yet."

The music director o f The War Dept. readings is Dominick Ammendum, who has for the past seven years served as associate music supervisor for the long-running Broadway musical Wicked. Bauer spoke with Playbill.com to share her insights on musical theatre, The War Dept. and her collaboration with her husband Jim.

What drew you to musical theatre? 
Ruth Bauer: I love the way music can provide an inviting entry into a story for an audience and can open up storytelling possibilities.

Can you mention your musical theatre influences?
RB: Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris made a big impression on me when I was a teenager. I was also fascinated with the musical film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," which is completely strange and surreal.

Can you discuss the process of musicalizing either a play, short story, novel or non-fiction book? 
RB
: The process of writing The War Dept. is very organic and moves between the music and lyrics (Jim’s responsibility), story, and visuals; and we are always considering how to use the best medium for each part of the narrative. 

Is it difficult to write the opening lines of music lyrics in musical theatre?
RB: Jim is the lyricist so I can’t answer that specific question, but figuring out the beginning of a theatrical show is very challenging.

What inspired you to write The War Dept.?
RB: We were commissioned to write a music theatre piece by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge as part of a sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War. Our research led us to the history of the Ford’s Theater, which was converted to offices to be used by the War Department (now called the Defense Department) and we found the legacy of the Civil War to be a compelling and rich topic.

Did you tell the story of The War Dept. from the point of view of William T. Clarke?
RB: William T. Clarke’s peculiar command of facts and numbers makes him a pivotal figure in The War Dept., but the multiple perspectives of all of the characters are essential to the story.

How did you manage to create characters that wrestle with history and political change in The War Dept.
RB
: We are particularly indebted to three books that were instrumental in developing our story and characters, although I have a long list of other books that were also very helpful: "This Republic of Suffering" by Drew Faust, "The State of Jones" by John Stauffer and "Sick From Freedom" by Jim Downs. 

Can you discuss your collaboration with your husband Jim?
RB: Jim and I each have our own areas of expertise but share a similar approach to the creative process, which is a willingness to ramble and explore ideas without a specific destination. We have our disagreements, but in the end, we find a solution that best serves the work itself.