BWW Interviews: Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper Revisit Chamberlain
I sat there alone on the storied crest, till the sun went down as it did before over the misty hills, and the darkness crept up the slopes, till from all earthly sight I was buried as with those before. But oh, what radiant companionship rose around, what steadfast ranks of power, what bearing of heroic souls. Oh, the glory that beamed through those days and nights. Nobody will ever know it here! - I am sorry most of all for that! The proud young valor that rose above the mortal, and then at last was mortal after all....
When she read these lines written by Civil War hero and Maine Legend Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain more than eighteen years ago, lyricist/ book writer Sarah Knapp became convinced that she and her husband composer Steven M. Alper had to write their "memory play." The musical, commissioned by Charles Abbott, then-Artistic Director of Maine State Music Theatre, became one of the greatest successes in the company's history, selling out before it even opened - ("it was the only show where they were scalping tickets on the lawn," Knapp recalls).
Now almost two decades later, Chamberlain A Civil War Romance will receive its first new production since that world premiere in 1996, once again at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, the hometown of Chamberlain and his wife Fannie. Speaking with the composer and writer just days before the opening, they shared their palpable excitement at the prospect of this revival.
Knapp explains the notion of a "memory play." "The show is a series of flashbacks inspired by Chamberlain's own words, as he talks about the ghosts which rise up around him." But in many other ways, the play evokes an entire series of memories for its creators as well. Knapp talks about how returning to Brunswick for rehearsals after the long interval has felt like its own kind of homecoming. "I had spent quite a lot of time there as an actress, and we had been embraced by the community all during the time we were researching and writing Chamberlain. It was a creative high in our lives."
Alper tells how Charles Abbott, "who lived a block away from us in Manhattan had called us and invited us to a movie. We went to see Gettysburg, and after the movie, he told us that Chamberlain was from Brunswick and that he would like to commission us to write a musical about him."
Knapp adds, " At first I couldn't imagine a musical about the war, but as we did our research, I was taken with Chamberlain's own words. His writing is so beautiful, so musical, romantic, and inspiring, and his relationship with his wife was stirring and full of dramatic conflict. And the letters!" she sighs. "In the library at Bowdoin they have his letter from Petersburg when he thought he was dying. I got to hold it in my hand. It was an amazing experience!"
Asked whether bringing material like this back to its "source" is a plus or a pitfall, Knapp reflects that she is fortunate to have had this experience. "How many writers have ever had the chance to see their play performed in the building for which your hero oversaw the construction, or to have his house directly across the street from the theatre, or to go to church and sit in their pew, or visit his grave, and walk the same famed streets. I felt as if he were watching us. It's unique in the life of a writer to do something like this."
But both Knapp and Alper feel that the story of Chamberlain is not confined in its appeal to Brunswick alone. The play, which recently had a staged reading at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, "has broader themes about the conflict between public duty and private devotion," Knapp says. "And Chamberlain's story and that of the sacrifice of his soldiers are important ones for all Americans to hear. It is the story of the sacrifice of all Civil War soldiers to preserve the ideas which define us."
But if Knapp and Alper's musical is about heroism and duty, it is also very much about "the love story of Chamberlain and his wife, Fannie Adams, that is the driving force of the tale. It is their passion that is the crux of the show," she affirms. Knapp, herself, played Fannie in the original production, is greatly impressed by the revival's interpreter, Kathy Voytko. And like Voytko, she finds sympathy for Fannie's sometimes difficult nature. "She was a surprising, unusual, amazingly intelligent woman for the time period. She was going blind even before they had married, and she wanted to be taken care of, and her husband was always pulling away from her to do what he felt he was divinely meant to do." Knapp tells the anecdote about Fannie's gossiping with the ladies that Chamberlain had struck her, and how the then-governor wrote furiously chiding his wife. "You could tell how angry he was just from the way the pencil imprinted the paper," Knapp recounts. "I think she wanted his attention and she got it!" she laughs.
The new production, which opens on June 26 at the Pickard Theatre, is directed/choreographed by Marc Robin. Asked how they think this will differ from the premiere which Charles Abbott mounted, Knapp says "Marc likes things to flow cinematically," and Alper concurs, "Abbott liked things encapsulated, buttoned up, so this is different."
The change in directorial sensibilities has occasioned some revisions in the show, the most major of these the reordering of a major scene, as well as the streamlining of some transitions to keep the piece flowing. Alper says that the book changes then necessitated some musical revisions as well. "Other than moving that big scene and restructuring one number a great deal, the alterations were relatively minor in most cases. When we changed a few lines, I had to change the character of the musical accompaniment, and I adjusted the music to the other nips and tucks we did."
Asked to characterize Chamberlain's musical style, Alper explains that " when I am working on a period piece, I like to tip my hat to the actual styles of the time without feeling overly beholden. In a few places in this show I tried to sound exactly like what you might hear in the Civil War era. It was an interesting period in musical terms because in classical music, the shift from the Classical style to the Romantic was taking place. I try to have each character's music reflect the world in which they live. Fannie and Joshua's music alludes to the higher social strata from which they came, while when Chamberlain speaks to his soldiers or the soldiers, themselves, sing, I use a vernacular." Given Chamberlain and Fannie's religious convictions and associations with First Parish Church, Alper also has incorporated many hymn tunes, including the Chamberlains' favorite Abide with Me, just as he has used actual bugle calls, among them the call for the 20th Maine throughout the show.
Though Alper, himself, has worked as an orchestrator, the orchestrations for Chamberlain have been provided by the elite team of Larry Hochman, Doug Besterman, and Bruce Coughlin. He jokes by saying "the orchestrators have better credits than the rest of us," referring to "the huge number of Tony awards" they have garnered.
But while Chamberlain A Civil War Romance promises to be a new high, Knapp and Alper boast a long and distinguished resume of theatrical endeavors bookended between these two Chamberlain productions. Most recently, they enjoyed a huge success with their musical adaptation of Mark Harelik's play, The Immigrant, for which Alper was nominated for a Drama Desk award for his outstanding orchestrations. That project was born from a serendipitous meeting with Harelik at the New Harmony Project, when the author heard Knapp and Alper musing about what their next project might be, and he prosed his own play. Knapp says that as, with Chamberlain, as soon as she read Harelik's text, she "was struck by his language, and I knew where the songs would go."
In their collaborations words seem to be the departure point for Knapp and Alper. Of their shared creative process Knapp says, " I usually like to get going first."
Alper chimes in: "I have to know what the language is going to be before I start writing the music. I research sounds until I can develop a vernacular. Once it comes to be, whether as a single song or piece of a song or an idea for underscoring, then the musical world starts to open up."
Since their meeting at a dinner theatre in Tampa, Florida, and subsequent marriage, Alper and Knapp, have collaborated on several other musicals, beginning with The Library which also had its premiere in 1996, The Audition, and are at work on adaptations of Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter, - an idea which began in Brunswick when they stayed at the Federal Street home where Hawthorne had lived during his Bowdoin years - and a new "three-character manic musical version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night" (with a book by D. W. Gregory). The last of these is in the workshop stage with a tentative title of Yellow Stockings.
Separately, Knapp has pursued her acting career off-Broadway, in Europe, and in regional theatre, while Alper has composed incidental theatre music, written a textbook, Next! Auditioning for the Musical Theatre, based on his experiences teaching at CAP21, and worked as a conductor, music director, vocal arranger, orchestrator, and supervising musical copyist for numerous Broadway shows. Alper has referred to himself as "a musical handyman. I have done pretty much everything in the theatrical music business."
Knapp adds, "And one of his handy skills is that he is a computer genius!"
Alper says that he has embraced the computer revolution in the music business. "The first demo we did for Chamberlain was on a four-track tape recorder, but everything else after that was digital," and he was at the forefront of the movement in which Broadway copyists switched from hand copying scores to doing them by computer.
"I still use pen and paper," Knapp laughs.
Yet, whatever their methods, their creative collaboration has been an energetic and fruitful one. Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper bubble with new ideas and with an obvious passion for the work they share. They cannot resist mentioning the upcoming Chamberlain opening one more time. "We are so thrilled that MSMT and the fantastic new Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, wanted to do our show again! And Marc Robin is our new favorite director! Best of all, this time we will get to bring our sixteen year-old son, Sam."
"It's the show he knows least about," Alper says. "I told him it had guns," he teases.
Joking aside, however, Alper and Knapp enthusiastically agree that in assembling the entire cast and creative team for this revival, MSMT has outdone itself. "From all that we have seen, this will be a fantastic production, elaborate, big, really amazing, and very fluid. We can't wait!"
Portrait photo courtesy of Sarah Knapp & Steven M. Alper; Chamberlain photo courtesy Maine State Music Theatre, Mike Hadley, photographer