Ford's Revives A 'Shenandoah' For Uncivil Times

(By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Envision a musical -- as certain producers and writers have done -- that articulates anxieties about the ongoing war in Iraq. Something probing but not preachy, contemplative but not partisan.

For perspective, maybe it could really be about Vietnam . . . but only obliquely, without all the irresolvable mess. It could be as American as an eagle: noble, proud, principled. In a word, Jimmy Stewart-ish.

And set safely during -- perfect! -- the Civil War.

That, more or less, is the odd provenance of "Shenandoah," the 1975 Broadway hit being pointedly revived by Ford's Theatre in a production headlined by TV actor Scott Bakula and directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun.

The deal to do the show was struck last March as Calhoun restaged his Deaf West Theatre production of "Big River" at Ford's as the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq passed.

"My only fear," says Calhoun, sitting in a church office downtown where Ford's rents rehearsal space, "was that it wouldn't resonate as strongly as it would have last year. And, unfortunately, I think it's going to resonate more."

That sort of deflected resonance was what director-producer Philip Rose was after decades ago when he and lyricist Peter Udell started hunting for a follow-up to their 1970 hit musical "Purlie" (created with composer Gary Geld and based on the Ossie Davis play).

"A war was going on at the time," says Rose by phone from New York, "and I was looking for something to do about it."

The search led Rose, whose career was launched when he co-produced the premiere of "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway, to the largely unheralded 1965 James Stewart movie "Shenandoah." James Lee Barrett's screenplay concerns Charlie Anderson, a tough but lovable widower who tries to keep his family out of the Civil War.

Anderson, played with flinty charm by Stewart in the movie, is compelled to balance the questions of violence and sacrifice that war almost inevitably brings up. The character had enough heft and high-minded allure that Rose, trying to hustle up the backing for his musical version, could court bankable stars from Gregory Peck to Zero Mostel. John Cullum ended up winning a Tony Award for his robust rendition of the strapping anthems that Geld and Udell composed for Anderson, an icon of rugged individualism in troubled times; the show's other Tony was for the book by Barrett, Rose and Udell.

"That notion of shutting out the world -- what he wants to do as a family -- at times this country wants to do," says Bakula, 51, who has starred on TV's "Quantum Leap" and "Star Trek: Enterprise." "And it can't be done. You can't put up walls and say, 'We're fine, we're taking care of ourselves, everyone else do your own thing and don't bother us.' "

Musicals don't get written and produced overnight, and the Vietnam War was all but over when "Shenandoah" opened. If there was an anti-Vietnam vibe by the time a young Bakula thrilled to it from the back row -- his first time watching a Broadway show -- the aspiring actor missed it. It struck him as an old-fashioned throwback in the days of edgier and/or more pop-fueled musicals: "Pippin," "Raisin," "A Chorus Line" and, in 1975, "The Wiz," which outgunned "Shenandoah" in most major Tony categories. The critical comparisons were not to Lloyd Webber and Sondheim, but to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

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