Subtexts in the stacks

Certain grads-to-be might be thinking to themselves: “This is it. The end of my schooling. I’ll never have to study for another test, write another term paper, hit the books for research.” And we alums (Who Know Better) can only shake our heads and chuckle. Life brings all sorts of situations you have to cram for, and, in many professions, research.

Take musical theatre creation, for example. (And when aren’t we?) In John Lahr’s profile of the doyenne of Broadway directors, Susan Stroman, there’s this:

A stickler for research, Stroman had prepared a twelve-page information packet for the dancers who had been called for Day 1. In the packet was a glossary of terms, including “Greenwich Village,” “bohemian,” “Prohibition,” “gangster,” and “flappers,” along with citations for the show’s visual influences. To give the cast a taste of the playground of New York in the twenties, Stroman had inserted a couple of pages from the May 23, 1929, issue of The New Yorker: “A Conscientious Calendar of Events Worth While.”

For me, this touched off a nostalgic recollection to Day 1 of rehearsals of Such Good Friends, where wunderkind director Marc Bruni presented a similar packet about my setting. Brad Oscar, Tony-nominated for a Stro show, must have found this idea familiar. And all our very bright performers ate it up. Ace comic choreographer Wendy Seyb had investigated the dances performed on early television. Costumer Lisa Zinni brought magazine clippings of the sort of clothes my characters might wear. We even had a dramaturg who could have raised an alarm about any anachronism in my script.

I’m embarrassed to admit we missed one: one of my lyrics mentioned the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that didn’t exist in the 1950s. A well-known critic approached me at intermission, with a “gotcha” look on his face. And he was the second football fan I’d heard from! So I told him I’d just learned of my error and already had a replacement lyric ready to go. This so impressed him, he wrote a column praising me as one of the few writers these days who cares about getting details right.

I’ve an entire shelf of books I read, boning up on McCarthyism, in my preparation for writing Such Good Friends. The show is not a true story, but I wanted to show how the blacklist actually worked and affected people. So, I pored through stories of the Red Scare’s many victims. I was particularly inspired by the story of two old friends who had sons who were best friends. When one appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names, the other told his son he could no longer see the other man’s son. And, some time later, he succumbed to the pressure to name names himself. So dramatic. And I wrote it up for my musical, although eventually the piece evolved in ways that I didn’t need it, and cut it.

In that case, I researched for many years. In the case of The Pirate Captains, I had a fairly strict deadline. So I could only afford a few weeks nosing through dusty volumes. I did this in the picturesque Jefferson Market Library, a former jail in Greenwich Village. In studying these outlaws of the seas, I unearthed a buried treasure of fascinating lore. And no tale was more fascinating than that of Anne Bonney and Mary Read, the Atlantic Ocean’s cross-dressing pirate queens.

Here’s the tale as I remember it: Separately, and for different reasons, Bonney and Read dressed as men, and fooled everybody. Skilled swordswomen, they joined the crew of Calico Jack Rackham, and met on his ship, each thinking the other was a man. And, as is more likely to happen in a musical, or Shakespeare, than in life, they developed feelings for each other. Each thought these were heterosexual feelings, and had to find the right time to reveal their true gender. Once clothes were shed, though, it became clear that the lust they felt could only be manifested in Sapphic ways. Meanwhile, Captain Jack was becoming fonder and fonder of Bonney, and must have thought his attraction was homosexual. Eventually, both women’s secrets were revealed to him, leading them into a true sexual triangle. When the British captured the ship, all were convicted of piracy. Rackham was hanged but both women pleaded their bellies as both were pregnant and therefore could not be executed. That’s a mighty sexy story, as stories go. I’d previously encountered it in Erica Jong’s novel, Fanny (which was later adapted into a musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon) which is far less sexy than you’d expect a Jong book to be.

But there was a big problem in my using the tale in my musical. I’d been commissioned by a company looking to bring musical theatre to middle schools. Inspired as I was by Bonney and Read, I knew my commissioner would never accept a story about a pair of bisexual women. I settled, instead, for a comedy in which a young woman’s frustrations with the limitations imposed on 18th century girls leads her to become a pirate. And the passion she feels for her fellow pirate is instantly dashed when he’s revealed to be a she. It’s all very silly, far closer to The Pirates of Penzance than Boublil and Schönberg’s later flop, The Pirate Queen, which was inspired by the same story, and took it very seriously.

Speaking of not taking things too seriously, I just received the new CD by Tom Carrozza. (It includes our holiday collaboration, Christmas In O’Hare.”) In researching the musical we wrote together, Area 51, we learned about all sorts of incredible things people believe about the government base in Nevada where, supposedly, things that fall from outer space are brought. Everything in our show is completely silly, but it, too, has a basis in fact. Well, not fact, per se, but stuff we researched in books and journals.

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