Laura Harrington Brings Her New Novel ALICE BLISS to Nashville For A PERFECT 36 Reunion
This weekend will be a homecoming of sorts for award-winning writer Laura Harrington, as she returns to the Nashville for the first time since 1996, in support of her new book Alice Bliss and a reunion with some of the city's best-known and best-loved theater artists who worked with her on the creation and production of The Perfect 36, an original musical staged by Mac Pirkle and Tennessee Repertory Theatre to celebrate the Volunteer State's Bicentennial.
Harrington will be at Parnassus Books in Green Hills on Sunday afternoon (at 1 p.m.; Parnassus Books is at 3900 Hillsboro Pike, call  953-2243 for details) to sign copies of Alice Bliss, to read a brief excerpt from the book, engage in a question-and-answer session and to greet friends-both old and new-as she continues her cross-country book tour. She's just recently returned from London (where Alice Bliss also has been released) and has set off across the USA to bring her first novel to the attention of America's readers, but there is perhaps no stop on the tour with more personal meaning for Harrington than Nashville.
Although it's her first visit to Nashville since she was last here in 1996 for The Perfect 36, Harrington maintains a strong connection to Music City through her friendships with the women and men she befriended during that previous sojourn during which she was crafting the libretto for the original musical about Tennessee's vital role in giving American women the right to vote.
For the past few months, Harrington and The Perfect 36'ers have gathered, if you will, on a special Facebook page created to plan their reunion and to share memories of their experience in bringing the musical, which was a centerpiece of Tennessee's Bicentennial Celebration, to the stage. Reading the various posts, engaging in the lively conversation that has transpired, it's easy to see that for everyone involved-all the way from Tennessee Rep's founder Mac Pirkle to actors Shelean Newman, Travis Harmon, Matthew Carlton, Linda Sue Simmons, Carolyn German (and scores of other theater personalities who've made Nashville home over the years)-The Perfect 36 was, indeed, a unique experience.
Shortly after her return from the British leg of her book tour, Laura Harrington took the time to respond to our questions, to tell us about Alice Bliss and to talk how special the whole Perfect 36 experience was for her and for everyone else involved.
Tell me about your new book...I was given this incredible award for my music theatre work: The Kleban Award for "Most Promising Librettist in American Musical Theatre." It gave me two years of writing time. Which was an awe-inspiring moment – so much validation for my theater career coupled with so much possibility. But I didn't immediately think: Great! I can't wait to write my next musical. Instead I thought: This is my chance to be a beginner again, to re-connect to the creative process by trying to do something I've never done before. I also wanted to pick up my pen without thinking about anything other than story. No worries about size of cast, cost of production, etc.
So I decided to write a novel.
Alice Bliss is about a 15-year-old girl whose father is in the Reserves and deploys to Iraq. It tells the story of a family, and of a small town looking after its own in times of loss; the love between an absent father and his daughter; the complicated love between Alice and her mother, Angie; and first love between Alice and the boy next door. It's a universal story and yet it touches on something very personal: these characters' struggles amid uncertain times echo our own.
How is the book tour going?I just got back from London where Alice Bliss has been chosen for the Richard and Judy Summer Book Club. This may not ring many bells here, but this book club is Britain's version of the Oprah Book Club. It also means that Alice Bliss is in every WH Smith Book Shop throughout the UK. To give you an idea, we saw five WH Smith shops in Terminal 5 at Heathrow on our way home. My sales director at Picador wrote to tell me she had seen several people reading Alice Bliss on the Tube. I get an incredible kick out of that.
Before coming to Nashville I'll be in New York City at Book Expo America and the New York Public Library, two bookstores in Raleigh/ Durham, the PX at Fort Bragg, and an event that is very close to my heart, a book giveaway for soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Hospital. Following Nashville, I'll be in Tupelo, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
How did you become involved in the project that resulted in The Perfect 36? I was recommended to Mac Pirkle, the artistic director of Tennesee Repertory Theatre at the time, by a mutual friend and colleague, Paulette Haupt (artistic director of the O'Neill Music Theatre Conference). Mac travelled to Cambridge where I was at the Bunting Institute at Harvard/Radcliffe for a fellowship year writing the musical Joan of Arc. The Perfect 36 was Mac's baby, a project he had wanted to do since learning about this slice of Nashville and national history in high school.
I can't tell you how impressed I was that Mac traveled to meet me. He put together his team for this show with tremendous care. And the opportunity to create a musical of this size and scale was amazing. A cast of 45, a show conceived and designed for a theatre which seats 2500, with a vast proscenium arch. Wow.
What are some of your most vivid memories of the process?Working in the archives with Sherry Ridlon, uncovering the photos, the press coverage, the stories behind the stories.
We had a very short timeline for this show. I started work during the summer, we had our first workshop in October, all heading toward an opening in May. Our brilliant cast was assembled for the October workshop. They read through the rough draft of the script. Mel Marvin, our composer, sang through the songs that had been completed. As each minute ticked by I could see more and more clearly that my approach was all wrong; that this draft would have to be scrapped and we would have to start over. A daunting prospect. Mel and I took an evening to talk things through and decide if we could continue. Mac Pirkle, to his everlasting credit, did not flinch when we told him the news. (Perhaps he was relieved that I could see the problems!) At this point many a producer/ director would have rolled up the tent and gone home. Not Mac.
Instead Mac, Mel and I locked ourselves in a suite at the Hermitage Hotel with colored pens and paper and basically didn't come out until we had story boarded an entirely new show. Finding the humor was the key to writing the show.
At our next workshop in February we had a completed draft of the script, half the songs, and a "punch list" of songs to work on while we were in Nashville together. One of the most memorable moments in the show is the top of Act Two: "A Woman's Voice." It's a complicated lyric because it takes us through an entire lifetime from birth to death and to top it off it featured an internal rhyme scheme. I wrote it in a few hours standing at the piano as Mel was working on another song. It was a gift. It also makes me think of that great quote by Leonard Bernstein, and I'm paraphrasing: "What do you need to create really good work? A great idea and not quite enough time."
Anything particularly funny or tragic? The tremendous knowing laugh from the audience when the leader of the Anti-Suffragettes declares: "I have come down from Monteagle mountain … (to lead you in this, our final battle.")
In re-creating the actual vote, we were somewhat constrained by the fact that we only had 23 men on stage. So Mac had the idea of putting a few "dummies" in the legislator's desks, which were all on wheels. It was a brilliant stroke, both funny and audacious.
How was the creative process of bringing the show to life important to your evolving career?I was on a trajectory in my work of exploring history and wanting to tell bigger stories. In some ways, The Perfect 36 set my imagination free. It also taught me that the traditional musical theatre structure, which I, and most of my peers had been in opposition to, has tremendous power when used well.
What are your fondest memories of the cast? Hands down: The first day of rehearsal, at the first sit-down read-through with the cast and the band, where we heard the band and Mike Morris's brilliant orchestrations for the first time. Not only did we have the relief of knowing –thank heavens, we've pulled off the impossible and we actually have a show-but suddenly I knew that Nashville was the best possible place to create this work. We had the best of the best on stage and in the band. I was off to the side of the room somewhere and Mel was pacing behind the band. As I wandered around, just watching and listening and reveling in the talent that was present, I realized that Mel was singing along with the band. I could read the delight in his face and in his voice. We shared a look: "It's working, it's working! And can you believe this cast and crew?" It was a peak moment, no doubt about it.
How about the reunion? What prompted you to attempt to bring everyone together? I haven't been back in Nashville since we did the show. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to re-connect to these amazing performers.
What was it about The Perfect 36 that sets it apart from your other career highs? It matters. It's an important story that retains its relevance. The fight for women's voting rights took 72 years and 800 legislative campaigns. Having a voice and the vote is our most profound right and privilege. Keeping the people's voice alive in our political process may be one of the most important political issues of this century.
- Laura Harrington's debut novel, ALICE BLISS, Pamela Dorman Books, VIking/Penguin. "This may be the Our Town of the 21st Century." Anne Roiphe, author of Epilogue, a Memoir. Alice Bliss is a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club Pick in the UK. Alice Bliss is a "People Pick" with four out of four stars. Alice Bliss: "The Best Books of the Summer," Entertainment Weekly. Alice Bliss has been selected for the Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" program. Alice Bliss: School Library Journal's "Best Books of 2011." Alice Bliss chosen "Book of the Week" by Stylist Magazine in the UK. A Massachusetts Library Association "Must Read" for 2012 foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy, and Denmark. Read more at: www.lauraharringtonbooks.com and www.facebook.com/LHarringtonbooks. Follow Laura Harrington on Twitter @LaurHarrington.