The role of Henry James is played by actor Henry Stram, who has been with the project from its first reading. "Originally, we did it without music," Stram recalls. "It has a very strong script and identity as a play." This is not to say that the music is unimportant; on the contrary, Stram rhapsodizes over it. "It has a delicacy in it and yet it's very passionate and very unexpected," he says. "For instance, in the first scene, the show starts with no music at all -- no overture, no real musical number. Then, suddenly, these little snippets of music start to come in, and some of it is so lush and so beautiful."
Interspersed with the story of James and his flop play are scenes adapted from James's short story "Nona Vincent." Although it was originally published in 1892, Stram notes that "Laurence and Polly have taken the liberty of having the short story written after the premiere of Guy Domville to serve the idea that Henry's failure in the theater led him to write these great novels towards the end of his life. In our piece, 'Nona Vincent' is a response to his failure as a playwright. It's a short story about a young playwright who has great success."
Although this may sound confusing, Stram insists that it all becomes clear when seen on stage. "Underneath it all, it's really an unrequited love story," he states. "James was obsessed with the theater. He loved it and he always wanted to be a popular playwright; it meant so much to him to have a success. The story is moving to me because it's about a man who is in his late middle age, trying to reinvent himself."
Although there are some original compositions in this show, the majority of songs parody established classics. "One of my goals with parody is always to try to maintain the rhyme structure," says Schatz. "To change the sound of the words as little as possible and yet to change the meaning of the song as much as possible." You can get an idea of his humor from the song titles, which include "God Bless Ye Femmy Lesbians," "Come Ye Unfaithful," and "A Lay in the Manger." There's also some explicitly political material, such as "I Want to Be a Republican" (which is the name of the group's upcoming CD) and "When You're Good to Dubya" (sung to the tune of "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago).
Although Schatz is the principle songwriter of the group, he is ably abetted by Irwin Keller and Chris Dilley. "They arrange [the songs] and make them interesting and beautiful," says Schatz. "Sometimes, they change my notes to make them more musically literate." Rounding out the ensemble is Kevin Smith Kirkwood, the most recent addition to the Kinsey Sicks.
The group celebrates its 10th anniversary on December 30, and Schatz and Keller are the only original members who remain. Both come from activist backgrounds; Schatz authored Clinton's HIV policy during the 1992 presidential campaign, for example, while Keller drafted the Chicago gay rights ordinance that was passed into law in 1989. "We didn't get into this because the only thing we ever wanted to do was sing," says Schatz. "We got into this because we like pushing the envelope."
"The characters I write about typically have a bald need for spiritual sustenance in their lives," the author continues. "In this country, that sustenance is often drawn from a lazy, platitudinous reading of scripture, one that's become more and more politicized. It's a real quandary in this society."
Letts is no stranger to Steppenwolf, having first performed with the company in 1988. He's continued the association over the years, claiming that he has "more or less grown up" with the troupe. In 2002, he was asked to join as a company member. "The best part of being a member is the sense of collaboration in creating new directions for the theater with artists whose work exceeds my own," he remarks. "The soil is fertile."
The playwright is best known for Killer Joe, originally produced in Chicago in 1993 and a hit Off-Broadway during the 1998-99 season. The play's uncompromising yet wickedly funny portrait of a "trailer trash" family's plot to kill the matriarch of the clan for the insurance money was both praised and villified by critics and audiences stunned by the frankness of its depiction of sexuality and violence. "Killer Joe's a strong cup of coffee, there's no getting around it," says Letts. "But I hope that both plays [Joe and Nebraska] function in the same way: that an audience member is pulled into a compelling story about characters who are rarely given a voice on the American stage."