Winesburg, OH in Kansas City, MO

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 27 May, 2008 at

In case you forgot, I used to have an active career in as a composer for theater. From 1995-2005 my buddy Andre and I worked our way up the theater ladder, starting as a couple of naive college kids who had written a college rock-musical adaptation based on Dante’s Inferno. We wrote hundreds of scores for plays, and at least five more musicals as contracted by various small theaters. Over the years, though, our career paths slowly diverged. As the theaters got bigger and more professional, rehearsals moved to daytime hours — and thus we had to quit our day jobs to keep going. Andre took the leap to become a “pro” designer; with my family and mortgage, though, I wasn’t able to bring myself to walk away from the lucrative and exciting world of professional software development.

Andre now travels around the country writing scores for dozens of regional theaters, and he’s been gracious enough to let me ride his coattails now and then. When a rare “musical theater” opportunity presents itself, we’ll still work together in the studio like the old days. Since I had a kid in 2005, I’ve had even less time to work with Andre, though we did write a children’s musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” for the Steppenwolf theater last year.

The work I’m most proud of, though, was a very dark musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. If you’re not familiar with the book, you should be — it’s a collection of twisted short stories about life in a small town around 1900. Think “Our Town” on crack. Sherwoood Anderson’s book was scandalous when it was released about about 100 years ago, but his groundbreaking style had a (self-admitted) heavy influence on later writers such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner.

In any case, as with all decent musical theater, our “Winesburg” show has gone through numereous evolutionary iterations. It started as a tiny production in 2002, followed by more workshops, followed by a bigger production in Chicago which garnered a regional Jeff Award… then a workshop in NYC, a production by some kids at an arts college in Connecticut, and finally a much larger regional production in Philadelphia which won a Barrymore Award. (The Philly show actually produced box-office royalities, which paid for my banjo!) While I’m skeptical the show will ever go to Broadway, I do hope it gets refined and popular enough to get published and make the rounds at regional theaters around the country.

So: we’re ready for round 7! The show will be playing at the Kansas City Repertory in March 2009. Mark your calendars. One more chance to improve, rewrite, or add new music. I’m pretty excited to be involved again.

Incidentally, this musical is the reason why — about five years ago — I gave up my life as a jazz pianist for folk music on stringed instruments. It was the first show Andre and I had written where the piano plays only a minor role. Many songs have no piano at all, in fact. I remember running rehearsals without Andre, and discovering that certain songs simply couldn’t be rendered at the piano… the only solution was for me to quickly take some guitar lessons. From there, my teacher introduced me bluegrass, and then off I sailed into banjo-land. I’ve not really gone back to the piano since then!

5 Responses to “Winesburg, OH in Kansas City, MO”

  1. Hello Ben,
    I enjoyed reading your comments about the genesis of Winesburg, Ohio and I’m thrilled that Eric has included it as part of next season. It’s started me thinking about Metamorphoses and what a spectacular job you guys did on that show. It’s great having Eric in K.C. and hope you have an opportunity to come in for Winesburg.

    Laura Muir
    Director of Communications
    Kansas City Repertory Theatre

  2. Your father-in-law who was there.

    Ben, you are too modest. It didn’t just recieve “a Barrymore award,” it received a lot of Barrymore awards, and was the biggest theater award winner in Philadellphia that year. it is also my favorite of the works you all did. However, in my opinion, in its evolution, you discarded my favorite song.

  3. Can I just say how much I love that you link to your design site where your resume is almost 4 years old? So, basically, what we’re saying here is that Dre is not doing a lot of updating of the site, I would assume. Anyway, congrats on the next run of Winesburg, hope to run into you sometime soon.

  4. Are the rights for Winesburg, Ohio available for production? I work with a company that just did a folk musical and is also well known for macabre works and this sounds like it could be perfect. I know a Chicago production has already happened but it might be interesting to bring it back. Let me know.

  5. In our business we can sometimes think we know it all, but after reading this I can see I have much to learn.