Jack Murphy's 'Autumn' Asks About The After
We all know we're going to die someday… just not today. So, why are we here and is there more to our journey? Those questions were the inspiration behind Tony Award-nominated writer Jack Murphy's new play Gods of Autumn, which makes its world premiere at Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy on Wednesday August 20, 2008; starring Tony Award-winning Broadway actor Jarrod Emick (Damn Yankees) and Jessica Phillips (Next to Normal). Murphy also directs.
In collaboration with Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy wrote the lyrics for The Civil War, which garnered him a Tony nomination for Best Score; and was soon back on Broadway again with two songs penned for the hit show, Swing!. His other latest projects include a musicalized version of Dumas' enduring story, The Count of Monte Cristo.
In-between fast-paced rehearsals (and surviving the summer heat), creator and director Jack Murphy took a few moments to chat with BroadwayWorld contributor, Eugene Lovendusky, about the genesis of this new play and how he hopes it will challenge Raleigh audiences…
Eugene Lovendusky: To what does the play's title allude? Should the audience expect a spiritual experience?
Jack Murphy: The plays title alludes to the personal end of things ... our relatively stingy allotment of days on the big, blue marble. Because of the nature of the material, I guess it could be viewed as a spiritual exploration. I hope rather that it will allow people to ask the same questions I've been asking for as long as I can remember: Why are we here? Is there someplace after this ... do we somehow go on? Those sorts of open-ended questions. I think the play is not so much about answers as it is about questions.
Eugene: Gods of Autumn juggles themes of death, life and weaving of human stories… What more can you share about the play's storyline and what inspired you to tell this tale?
Jack: This story was prompted by my interest in how 3 people from dramatically different walks of life - people who never would have met under normal circumstances - would interact with one another; kind of like people from Mars and Pluto and Earth, like that kind of different. This led to me asking where could such a thing occur ... a lifeboat? An elevator stuck between floors? I finally settled on the waiting room of the Radiation Treatment center in a NY hospital. There is also a fourth character whose existence came about as I was writing. I call him "The Other Part" and he's exactly that: the other part of us and of the other 3 characters; the voice inside their head with whom they hold discussions.
Eugene: How did Gods of Autumn come to world premiere with Hot Nights at the Kennedy?
Jack: I met Michael Kennedy and K.D. Kennedy, the producers of the theater, when I was down in Raleigh with my musical theater writing partner, composer Frank Wildhorn, to meet with them about another project which used to be titled Waiting For The Moon and, after an extensive rewrite, has subsequently been re-titled Zelda. Michael and K.D. and I had dinner and I told Michael about my idea for a play - a chamber piece really - and he seemed to think it would work in their small space called Hot Summer Nights At The Kennedy Theater.
Eugene: This is not the first time you've collaborated with actor Jarrod Emick, having worked with him in your musical Waiting For The Moon. Tell me a little more about your work/performance relationship, and what you've enjoyed this go-round… and the pleasures of working with new actors like Jessica Philips.
Jack: First of all Jarrod Emick is riveting in his role as Jimmy Sullivan in this piece. I was impressed by his passion and commitment to character, and emotional truth (not to mention his great voice). The female lead is simply great: Jessica Phillips. I actually worked with Jess about 12 years ago on a musical I wrote with Mary Bracken Phillips (no relation) called Silver Dollar. Jess was wonderful in that, but the maturity and truth that she brings to the roles of Mary and Bernadette in Gods of Autumn is something to behold and a little breathtaking. We found really first-rate local actors down in Raleigh to fill-out the cast and I'm honored to be working with them: Dorothy Brown as Fashion Editor, Evelyn Whitman, Holden Hansen as The Other Part, and Gilly Conklin as Evelyn's Mom and the Nurse at the hospital.
Eugene: In a world teeming with people connected via technology, it's commonly said we are as isolated as ever… grasping for purpose and "to feel" within our lifetime. How does Gods of Autumn tackle the themes of "holding on and hoping"?
Jack: You're right, we are isolated (even insulated) from the rest of humanity in our data driven world. I think the extreme nature of facing one's mortality causes these artificial interfaces to fall away and leave us all asking the same questions: what was it all about? Is this it? To a certain extent is makes the religious fundamentalists of the world seemed oddly enviable in a way: I wish I had that certainty of an afterlife ... that pure faith of a child that, once lost will never be regained. The three "real live" characters in the piece, Mary, Jimmy and Evelyn face their mortality and these questions in different ways. I guess the character Mary is more like me than the other three which is why I gave her the last line of the play: "Maybe, that's what life is all about - holding on and hoping," because I want to believe that there's something else ... call it naive or cowardly or foolish or whatever you like but I need to believe that.
Eugene: How did you decide - and how is it different - to embark upon a straight-play, after an impressive background writing for new and adapted musical pieces?
Jack: I wanted to try something that wasn't about "is it commercial ... will it make money?" ... all the rest of the very real nuts and bolts of things in the world of musical theater I'm used to. Also, I've always believed musicals to be comprised of broad emotional strokes because of the very nature of music ... the emotional truth of the thing is lifted by the music. In plays the truth lies in the details of characters lives ... the audience can't let a play wash over them and really get that much out of it, at least in my opinion. The audience is asked to "connect the dots," to bring something more active to the table as it were.
Eugene: What can theatre audiences hope to see next from your pen?
Jack: I'm currently writing lyrics for a show called Havana with a book by Nilo Cruz and music by Frank Wildhorn. Nilo's a real poet who writes in a very lyrical style which I love, and Frank's melodies are some of the most eminently sing-able, rhythmic work he's ever done. I'm also writing lyrics for a piece called Wonderland again with music by Frank Wildhorn and book by Phoebe Hwang, to be directed by dear friend and the smartest person I know, Gregory Boyd, which is more fun than anyone should be allowed to have and still get paid for; it's being written for the fall season of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Frank and I have three openings coming up in Europe as well: Carmen in Prague in October (with book by Norman Allen); Rudolf in Vienna in February of 2009; and The Count Of Monte Cristo in Switzerland in March of 2009.
Eugene: As the final act in another fulfilling season of Hot Summer Nights at The Kennedy, with what do you hope audiences of Gods of Autumn capture at the end of the evening?
Jack: I hope people will be engaged in the story and take away some little piece of truth from it. If the audience even only winds-up asking questions - revisiting issues all of us avoid on a daily basis - I will be happy.
Gods of Autumn brings Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy to a close with the summer series' final run August 20 - 31. Performances: Wednesday - Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 3PM. For tickets call 919-834-4000 or visit TicketMaster.com or the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts Box Office on Wilmington Street in Raleigh. Individual tickets are just $27.50. Senior, Student and Military discounts (with Valid ID) are available for $17.50 on Friday, Saturday and Sundays. Group discounts are also available by calling 919-828-3726. For additional information, please visit HotSummerNightsAtTheKennedy.org.
Photos: Gods of Autumn show-art; writer Jack Murphy; Jarrod Emick and Jessica Philips (2008, by Katherine Kennedy)