Stars Align for 'Swan'
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008
Next week the following talents will come together to put on a five-show run at the Kennedy Center: Oscar winner Kathy Bates, improv legend Fred Willard, acclaimed composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, "The Color Purple" stage director Gary Griffin and writer Marsha Norman, whose résumé includes a Pulitzer and a Tony.
The material being tackled by this covey of heavy hitters? "The Trumpet of the Swan," E.B. White's least-known children's book, about a swan born mute.
That's right: Some of today's best theatrical talents have aligned themselves in Washington to present a nearly forgotten story of a voiceless swan -- a story that they envision as perhaps the next "Peter and the Wolf."
"It's bigger than 'Peter and the Wolf,' " says Norman, the writer and driving force behind the production. "It's going to be, I think, way more theatrical and dramatic. And yet retain all of the charm and curious moral power of 'Peter and the Wolf.' "
Norman, who won her Pulitzer Prize for the 1983 drama " 'night, Mother" and her Tony Award for the stage adaptation of "The Secret Garden," says that since she first read "Trumpet" 15 years ago, she has been obsessed with the story of the bird who learns to play the trumpet and find love.
"It's this idea that you were born with a deficit of some kind, which we all feel we have ... some kind of obstacle that stands in the way of getting us to where we want to be and getting us what we want in life," she says. "That story appeals to me. That story of not enough, not good enough. That's the human condition."
When Kennedy Center executives asked Norman, who was teaching a summer playwriting program, if there was anything she'd like to work on with them, she proposed a stage adaptation of the 1970 novel.
"They said yes instantly," she recalls. Then she had to actually write it.
Norman, who has written musicals, didn't want to do a standard adaptation but wasn't sure that a musical approach would work. "Because nobody wants to see a guy wearing a swan outfit playing the trumpet.' "
Then it hit her: "Peter and the Wolf." Minimal costumes, minimal staging, wondrous, evocative music.
"Because ultimately it's a musical story, it's just a natural for this form," she says.
Brown, who won a Tony for the score of "Parade," was hired to compose the accompaniment, which traverses a spectrum of American music from swing and big band to jazz and folk songs.
When Norman mentioned the "Swan'' project to her friend Bates, who starred in the original production of " 'night, Mother," she replied, " 'Oh, I think I could do that,' " Norman recalls. "And from there it was magical."
"Just hearing Marsha talk about it just got me so excited," Bates says of the early conversation that prompted her to sign on for the role of Mother Swan. "When she talked about the piece and what motivated her to write it and talked about the orchestra and what would be happening, I just got chills."
The story stirred similar emotions in everyone associated with the production. "I loved this real, great story of a character who is all about freedom," Griffin recalls of his first impression of the book. "And the power isn't sentimental. It's really all about finding your voice and making your way in the world."
" 'The Trumpet of the Swan,' " he adds, "is a big idea story." It grapples with such themes as identity and self-regard. "It's not children's theater. I think kids will be engaged, but it's for everybody. And it's really important to us that it doesn't come off like, 'Oh, this is a sweet, little kids, treacly music thing.' "
Hence the lack of swan costumes. That, too, the creators think, will help accomplish their ultimate goal: to launch the show into the world. "Anybody with a symphony orchestra and six actors can put this on," Norman says. "The goal is to run it everywhere.
"This is a great piece of American literature looking for its way to the audience. And I hope that this is it."