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.
"There was just a lot of change going on," Bakula recalls. "And this was a sweet, simple musical."
Even though Calhoun is blunt about being drawn to "Shenandoah" for its ravages-of-war stance, he says: "It's not a piece of propaganda. It's not a Michael Moore film. It's a very smart, entertaining, tragic look at a family's trials and tribulations, and what a lot of people in the world are going through right now."
The affable Bakula says: "It fits in the broader sense of what's happening without declaring, 'Here's the message show at the Ford's Theatre!' At the end of the day, you still want to be entertained. And you also want people to have something to think about. If you can. Without workin'."
Paul Tetrault, Ford's producing director, deadpans that scheduling "Big River" and "Shenandoah" as back-to-back musicals does not make his theater "the Civil War theater." He does, however, like the fantasy that characters in the current show could have attended a show at Ford's, which opened in 1861.
Sitting in his office across the street from the theater, Tetrault gently pounds the table for emphasis as he talks about Americana, the niche that seems to come part and parcel with the architecture and history of the building where Lincoln was shot. Tetrault uses the phrase "melting pot" as he insists that all sorts of shows might find a home at Ford's.
"We have a very quirky space," Tetrault says, "and some stuff just isn't going to work. It's about finding what's in that giant cornucopia that I say is Americana, finding what I like in there, and then finding what fits at Ford's."
What's on the line this time around is that Ford's gets a solo producing credit; last year's "Big River" was closely tied to what Deaf West had already done. "There's no one else holding our hand on this one," Tetrault says. In fact, he is already trying to drum up interest in this "Shenandoah" down the road, maybe on tour, possibly on Broadway -- something . That's Calhoun's goal, too.
"I don't think I would be doing this," says Calhoun, who has directed "Grease" and "Brooklyn" on Broadway, "if I didn't think it had a life, and legs, beyond this theater."
"We are in the gambling business," Tetrault declares. "This is a crapshoot. And as great as I think it is, everyone else could come and say, 'You're all washed up -- it's terrible.' But I think there's something here."
Tetrault's hopes are pinned to a pair of Broadway hands so experienced they've both already left careers behind. Calhoun, who started as a singer-dancer and moved into choreography, doesn't really think of himself as a choreographer anymore, and both men basically have been off the stage since the 1980s.
In Bakula's case, the actor got sucked through the cultural wormhole from New York to Los Angeles shortly after being nominated for a best-actor Tony in the musical "Romance/Romance" in 1988. He spent nearly a decade as a sci-fi heartthrob on television, and even the fringes of his career have been fruitful: TV movies, repeating roles on sitcom hits "Designing Women" and "Murphy Brown," respectable parts in such feature films as "American Beauty" and "Life as a House."
In his early days, he got work in various productions of "Shenandoah" so often he called it "my waiter job." "I did summer stock, the old straw-hat circuit, Maine and New Hampshire, Massachusetts -- cool old theaters," he says fondly. "And you're rolling around with all these guys, getting in trouble, having fun. So I had this whole history, and Jeff didn't know any of that."
Calhoun hasn't done the song-and-dance bit since he replaced his mentor, Tommy Tune, for the final two weeks of "My One and Only" on Broadway in 1985. "I'm very good at closing doors," he explains, nervously working a leather bracelet between his fingers as he talks. He's tall, big-boned, well dressed in a casual way -- cowboy boots, sheer white shirt, blow-dried hair. "I said, You know what? Directing and choreographing are my passions; I'm going to leave having taken my last bow on a Broadway stage."
Since then, his New York credits have ranged from the long-running "Grease" to the musical staging for "Grey Gardens," a new show that opened at Playwrights Horizons earlier this month. In matters of taste, Calhoun describes himself as old-fashioned (though apparently he has updated and streamlined some of the storytelling in "Shenandoah"), and he guarantees that at minimum this show will be "beautiful."
A beautiful Civil War musical?
"The Shenandoah Valley is beautiful," he begins. "And revealing the truth of a situation can be beautiful." Then he describes the trip he took with associate director Coy Middlebrook and set-costume designer Tobin Ost -- his standard team -- as they scouted the Virginia landscape and wondered how to render it theatrically. Their solution involves a set surrounded by steep hills, with an oversize picture frame hanging center stage.
Says Calhoun, "Once we could name it -- we're going to frame a piece of history; it can't contain the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley -- boom, it was done."
When he comes back around to the fundamental meaning of the show, Calhoun unexpectedly finds himself reflecting on his beginnings as a director, helming the leading edge of big-scale AIDS benefits in Los Angeles and New York.
"It sits weird," he says. "I'm grateful professionally, but at the same time it's heartbreaking. And I feel the same way about this."