The authors of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lombardi, The Pitmen Painters, and The Scottsboro Boys discuss turning fact-based stories into Broadway fare.
The playwright used David Maraniss' book When Pride Still Mattered: The Life of Vince Lombardi as his primary source material. "Using the book makes it a lot easier to draw facts out from Lombardi's life if you need them," he notes. "Maraniss delved into the life of Lombardi, so we get to hear part of the story from Lombardi himself."
Even the play's set-up -- which concentrates on a single week during the 1965 season when (fictional) Look magazine reporter Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) spends a week with Lombardi and his wife Marie (Judith Light) to gather material for an article -- is derived from a real-life incident mentioned in the book, when the sports reporter W.C. Heinz spent a week with the coach to see if they could write a book together. "It sounded like a hilariously frustrating experience," says Simonson. "But unlike Heinz, Michael is a bit naïve, so he's an amalgamation of different people and characters, and he even serves as a surrogate for Lombardi's son."
An even more challenging project is the musical The Scottsboro Boys -- which has arrived on Broadway after earlier productions this year at the Vineyard Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre. The show, directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, chronicles the trials of nine African-American men unjustly convicted of raping two women in the 1930s (one of whom later recanted her story).
According to composer John Kander, the more the show's creators (including the late lyricist Fred Ebb) researched the source material, the more they became drawn to it. "It was the story of nine people whose lives were destroyed, and then they just disappeared from the public consciousness," he says.
To help craft the script, Thompson obtained letters, newspaper articles, original court transcripts, and books written by two of the boys, Haywood Patterson (who became the show's central focus) and Clarence Norris. "Research was just everywhere, so it was a matter of taking it and narrowing it down to the story we wanted to tell," says Thompson.
The creators ultimately decided to use an unusual framing device to tell their story: a minstrel show emceed by a white interlocutor (played by Tony Award winner John Cullum) in which the "Boys" act out their tale, along with the help of the fictional Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (played by Colman Domingo and Forest McLendon, respectively). "It was the only way [the boys] could tell their story in 1931 and have people listen to them," says Thompson of the minstrel show device.
Timbers, the show's writer and director, and Friedman, its composer-lyricist, say they knew from the get-go that satire was the way to tell the life story of Jackson (played by rising star Benjamin Walker), especially after watching many documentaries and reading a variety of books."If you just read the major works on him," Friedman says, "they disagree bluntly on all sorts of things, including his place in American history and whether what he did was good or bad."
The show reflects that dichotomy, as it deals with Jackson's often ill-guided quest to solve the country's so-called "Indian problem." In the interest of dramatic economy, a number of things are conflated, including the presidencies of James Monroe and James Madison, or merely skipped over. More interestingly, Jackson's stay in the White House is portrayed as a continual, 21st-century party, with a sommelier, cheerleaders, and people playing the Wii. "It's completely historically anachronistic but hopefully gets that essence of what it felt like to be there," says Timbers. "But the show does contain tons of Jackson facts and historical truths around some of the non-factual stuff in the production."
Perhaps the biggest decision was to use a music style called "emo," which is known for its deeply confessional lyrics. As the creators discovered how Jackson frequently felt put-upon and betrayed by hidden forces, "the more it came true that he really does feel like he's right out of an emo song," Friedman says.The story of Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters, now being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is likely unknown to most Americans. The work focuses on five English coal miners in the 1930s who turned to painting as a way of expressing themselves -- and found themselves embraced by the larger art world.
Hall says he was compelled to write the play after discovering William Feaver's book about the subject, despite not wanting to write something with similar themes and location to his smash hit Broadway musical Billy Elliot. "I could read a lot about the characters' lives through what they drew and painted," he says.
Still, the Tony Award-winning scribe freely admits to taking some liberties with the story; among other things, the original "Pitmen Painters" consisted of about 20 miners. Moreover, Hall admits to "inventing the circumstances" surrounding the character of Oliver Kilbourn (played by Christopher Connell) being offered a stipend to paint by the art collector Helen Sutherland (played by Philippa Wilson), although there is evidence that the two had a close relationship. And, yes, one of the paintings in the show was actually done by a different person.
"It was convenient to have that character paint that painting," Hall says. "But other than that, it's pretty much all true -- bizarrely as that seems."