BWW Interviews: MSMT Panel Explores Chamberlain Experience
Maine State Music Theatre hosted its second talkback in its series, "A Peek Behind the Curtain," on July 2, 2014, at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. The six-person panel moderated by BWW's Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, was comprised of Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, Advisory Board and "Angel" member Lee Gilman, Costume Rental Supervisor Amy Mussman, and actors James Patterson (Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain), Kathy Voytko (Fannie Chamberlain), and Sam Weber (Tom Chamberlain) explored the experience of creating the revival of Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper's musical, Chamberlain A Civil War Romance. The near-capacity crowd at the Morrell Reading Room was treated to a lively exchange among the panel members and audience, laced with the warmth, camaraderie, and obvious affection for the company and the work.
Clark began the discussion with the history of his decision to mount this epic show after its absence from the stage for eighteen years: "When I first came here nine years ago as an actor, I was housed in a lovely cabin on the New Meadows River. The owners would consistently have small dinner parties where people would say to me, 'When will they do Chamberlain again? 'At that point I knew nothing about the original production. When I became interim Artistic Director last year, I discussed with my partner, Stephanie Dupal, the idea of bringing it back. We started a dialogue with the authors, who were willing to modernize it, to cut and revise, because theatre has changed a great deal in those intervening years. We were thrilled when they signed on, and that's when I started researching Chamberlain in serious detail. Marc Robin [the director] and I went to Gettysburg," Clark recalled, where, after a difficult ascent over rocky terrain to the monument to the 20th Maine, he and Robin came upon a crowd of people and overheard a father say to his son, 'this is a monument to the man who made the North salute the South when we surrendered.' "It gave me shivers! I sat there wondering how that one act of Chamberlain's might have been what really sealed the deal and gave the South the out they needed to come back to us willingly. Chamberlain became the cornerstone of the season," Clark declared. "It is a thinking person's show; you have to listen, and if you do, there is a reward at the end of the night."
The three actors concurred that this is a show that has tested them dramatically and musically, spurred them to do research, and to grow with the roles each night. Patterson and Weber read a great deal and watched documentaries and films such as Gettysburg. Voytko cited the letters of Joshua and Fannie as inspirations, and all visited the sites associated with Chamberlain in Brunswick, - his home, his grave, Bowdoin College, and First Parish Church.
All said they thrived on the complexities of their characters and the conflicts the script provides. Voytko talked about the tensions in the Chamberlain marriage: "These two love each other, but the show is realistic. They are a married couple who, like all married couples, get into some scrappy fights, but they always come back to each other." She also believes that the romance exists not only between Chamberlain and his wife, but between Chamberlain and the honor and ideals he cherishes." She maintains that it is more challenging to an actor to play people who are not perfect, but flawed and human.
Clark interjected an anecdote about a spectator who told him after one show that he had taken exception to the way the musical portrayed some of Chamberlain's personality flaws - " he did actually have a temper" - to which Clark replied that "it is important to realize our heroes are human beings as well. If we set them up as unattainable, we will be disappointed. I think Chamberlain is such a powerful figure because he does have negative traits, but you see him overcome these and survive with his honor."
Patterson supported that idea: "You have to remember his sacrifice, how many times he was almost killed, how he was in pain almost his entire life, and yet he barreled on."
Weber spoke of his role as Joshua's brother Tom, which progresses from young, idealistic, and ingenuous to alcoholic and despondent after the war. "I am a vehicle to get James' character to where he needs to be, and there is a tremendous amount of give and take which ultimately leads to the end where everyone is crying as they should be." Weber also said that the intensity of his second act scene with Chamberlain is "a kind of therapy. To do that scene I have to go to a very dark place within my self and remember losses in my family. Every day I go back to the hospice room, and it is intense."
Mussman bolstered the actors' comments saying that she admired the way the cast "was able to bounce back and forth in time period and show the growth of their characters," while Clark complimented them on their skill at physicalization and the way he has seen the show and characters grow each night.
The company agreed that the play's challenges are not only dramatic, but musical as well. Weber said his "up-tempo number is happy and fun," but that Voytko and Patterson "have these amazing ballads and complex songs that test range."
Patterson said his role is vocally "not easy. It has some big moments and you have not only to sing well, but also to let out some of the raw emotion. And, when you have two shows a day, you have to be a little careful." But he called the Alper work "a beautiful score, very epic and complex, not at all your typical music-theatre piece."
Voytko concurred saying that the way this revival is structured, "it is almost through composed, operatic in scope, and yet very accessible. You have to listen actively to the words."
"And in that sense, it is very Sondheim-esque," Clark added.
Asked by an audience member what changes they might have been made to accommodate the singing-actors, Voytko said she requested a higher key in one song and the possibility of letting the spoken introductions flow right into the music.
Patterson agreed that working with Marc Robin was such a collaborative experience that "he would try new things until we felt comfortable in our own skins."
Mussman addressed some of the backstage challenges in producing such a large scale work, especially in the costume department, which did extensive research to reproduce the Civil War period look. To the delight of the audience, she brought along for demonstration some hallmark attire, including corsets, pantaloons, and a man's white shirt. "We had to try to make it accurate for all the history buffs who would see the show."
Judging from the enthusiastic talkback crowd as well as the fervent nightly audiences, many of whom had traveled from other states to see the production, Chamberlain A Civil War Romance has been having a hugely positive impact. Lee Gilman summed it up by saying, "I have worked in the box office, and I listen to conversations. The pride I have seen in the community about this show is amazing - of having a premiere here and having our own hero be the focus of so much attention. It is a very special moment for this theatre and for Brunswick."
Several audience members lamented the lack of a recording (which would have been extremely costly to produce), and wondered aloud about the stage future of the musical, something the creators Knapp and Alper are surely pursuing. But for MSMT and Brunswick, on July 12, this remarkable troupe of actors and crew will disband and go their separate ways again. As Weber put it, "we are together for a brief and intense time; we are best friends and colleagues and then we may never see each other again."
"But if we do," Clark added, "the beautiful part is that no matter how much time has passed, we will pick up exactly where we left off. "
And all the panelists agreed that coming back to MSMT was always a pleasure and priority. Patterson, who was returning for the first time since CATS in 2005 said,"This is one of the finest companies in the country, and the community is so supportive. It is one of the best places to work."
Weber recalled his own special attachment to the company for it was here "I fell in love" and met his future wife, when he was an intern and she house manager. And Gilman enthused about having been Weber's "angel" when he was an intern and now having the opportunity to see him blossom on the main stage. And Mussman reiterated the oft-expressed feeling "that MSMT is a large family."
But if the panelists felt they were each taking away something precious from the experience, one audience member articulated passionately and cogently what she had gleaned from Chamberlain. Toward the end of the discussion Mary E. Baard, Pastor of First Parish Church, where choir master young Joshua Chamberlain met organist Fannie Adams, where they worshipped throughout their lives, rose to thank the scenic designers for conjuring up her church so beautifully and then went on to comment: " I appreciated the direct engagement of religious and spiritual matters in this show. You play complex characters grappling with those issues in complex ways. I wondered what it was like to explore the characters' inner spiritual lives and the conflicts their beliefs may have created for them."
Patterson identified with her question. "Back then religion was different; everybody seemed to have faith, while today people question more. I believe we are still searching for that spirituality, and for me it is a question every night. It's easy to have faith when times are happy, but what happens when things go wrong? Chamberlain's own faith was tested many times, but he never lost sight of his beliefs."
Weber shared that his character Tom Chamberlain, especially in his despair in the second act, causes him to confront his own questions about faith and his own losses."
Voytko felt that the conflicts between and within the characters "make the stakes that much higher," and she applauded the authors for "doing a real service to history by keeping the God component that Joshua and Fannie always wrote about in the musical."
Clark continued," This is another reason that this play needs to be seen. Here was a man who did not let his faith slip away. Did he question it? Yes. I heard you give a sermon one Sunday," he replied to Pastor Baard, "where you said you didn't know the answer to the question, and I loved you that day for saying that! Not knowing the answer does not mean we shouldn't strive, struggle, and try. Chamberlain did that his whole life."
As Baard thanked the creative forces of the show for "respecting those values," the earlier discussion about Chamberlain as a thinking person's show came to mind together with these lines from my opening night review: MSMT's production has a strong visionary bent. Chamberlain is about ideals worth living and dying for, just as it is about flawed human beings who rise to then occasions thrust upon them by life and history.
Not only did Chamberlain, Fannie, and the other historical characters rise to this challenge, but artistically speaking so has MSMT in telling this magnificent theatrical tale.
Photo Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre, Missy Patterson, photographer