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Broadway Bullet Interview: People Vs. Mona

We meet with Jim Wann, the composer/lyricist/co-author of the book, and with director/producer, Kate Middleton. Daniel Bailey accompanies Mariand Torres and Richard Binder in three songs: "Tippo", "Lockdown Blues", and Come on Down to Tippo". This is Jim Wann's first musical since the award-winning Pump Boys and Dinettes, which launched the career of Debra Monk, among others. A little bit love story, a little bit courtroom drama, the musical comedy is set in Tippo, Geroge. It's about the trial of Mona Mae Kitt, who owns a popular hangout in town, and is charged with her husband's murder. If she's convicted, she will have to go to jail, and her attorney has never won a case against the prosecutor -- who is also his fiancee. This production marks its New York premiere. It is playing at the Abingdon Theatre (312 West 36th Street), and opened July 18th.

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Broadway Bullet Interview: People Vs. Mona

 

BROADWAY BULLET: Pump Boys and Dinettes is one of my favorite cast albums ever, and it is still my misfortune that I have not caught a live performance of the show, but the cast recording is indelibly etched in my head.  And I am feeling very excited that the composer of that show, Jim Wann, is here to talk about, and have cast members perform songs from his first show since then, People vs. Mona, and he's joined in the studio by producer and director, Kate Middleton.  How are you two doing?

KATE MIDDLETON: Great.

JIM WANN: Feeling good.

BB: So just last night, as we talk, was your first preview, and I understand it went really well.

JIM: It did, it started out well, and just kept getting better as it went along, really exciting.

KATE: We had a great house, and a lot of friends and family, and everyone just had a ball.  And it was so nice to have the actors get a response back from someone other than us. 

BB: So what, it's been over twenty years, hasn't it Jim?

JIM: Yeah, amazingly enough it has.

BB: (laughs) What's the gap here in the writing?

JIM: Well I started playing in a band, and we made a musical called King Mackerel and the Blues are Running: Songs and Stories of the Carolina Coast.  And we actually played New York a couple of times; we played the West Bank Downstairs Theatre and The Bottom Line.  It ran for a month and a half, until the money ran out -- whoever had the money, it ran out.  Went to the Kennedy Center, and all around the south, and then we kind of got tired of that musical, and reinvented ourselves as the fictitious band from the show, the Coastal Cohorts.  So now, for the last twenty years, we've been doing benefits for environmental, not-for-profits, cultural organizations.  You know, helping folks to raise money to keep the waters clean, to keep theaters open, and stuff like that, but I have been writing too.  I've gone along.

BB: And Kate, what got you involved with this show?

KATE: Ground Up [Productions] has been in New York for about two years at this point, and last year we did the New York revival of Pump Boys, and Jim came up.

BB: I didn't even hear about it!

JIM: Oh you should have seen it, it was fantastic.  It had all of the spirit and soul of the original.  It was just like a trip back in time for me.

KATE: It was.  We use Manhattan Theatre Source, downtown, for most of our shows. People vs. Mona is at the Abingdon, but Manhattan Theatre  Source is a really small space so it allowed the very intimate setting that that show needs, so that everybody can make contact with everybody in the audience; it was a lot of fun.  But Jim came down, and just had a blast, and then I heard about this show [People Vs. Mona] through the grapevine after that. 

BB: Pump Boys and Dinettes was kind of a unique theatrical experience -- although I missed it, I've  read the script, over and over -- it's a different kind of show.  But I understand this is a little more of traditional book musical, from what I can tell.

JIM: It is.  It takes some of that small town, side of the road, Pump Boys feeling, and puts a real story with it.  It's a mystery, so there's a mystery plot; it's a courtroom setting, so we had to find ways to musicalize things that are done in a courtroom; (sings) "Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" (laughter) Stuff like that.  The judge sings, everybody sings.  And there's also a love story, there's a love triangle, there's a fate of a small town hanging on the verdict, so yeah.  In terms of Pump Boys, which was more of a-day-in-the-life of these characters by the side of the road, gas station guys and waitresses, this has lots of elements of a traditional book musical story that we've weaved in.

BB: You're really part of the Nashville music scene too, right?

JIM: You know, I'm not.

BB: You're not!?

JIM: You know, I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Nashville was just up the road, and I used to go up there with my folks sometimes, and then I would go there from time to time.  Pump Boys had a real success there, and I went there, and met a lot of people around that time, and I thought about getting into country music after that. And a friend in the business said, "Jim, you know, I kind of look at you, and don't see somebody who really wants to spend 250 days out of the year on the road." And I said, "You know, you're right."  So I kind of waved goodbye to Nashville, and came on back to New York.

BB: You know, not only do I enjoy listening to Pump Boys, but for a year, I DJed at a country bar in Montana.

JIM: No kidding!

BB: And that CD was always my secret weapon because it had some great foxtrots and different things that the dancers always wanted.

JIM: Yeah, yeah.

BB: And they'd always be like, "What was that?!" (laughter)

JIM: God, what a great story.  Well, you would enjoy The Frog Pad, the heart of Tippo, because it's one of those kinds of places where someone like you will play something unexpected, and everyone will love it and get into it. 

BB: You know, I've always wondered why country music -- I listen to everything, and country music is already so close to musical theater.  I mean, Nashville songwriters tell stories, they bring in character, they go outside a lot of the boundaries, and their songwriting chops are really tight.  It's always been a bit of a puzzle for me why more of them don't get into musical theatre.  What has -- you balance playing live even if you're not in the Nashville country scene of music, what has been the differences for you between the theatre world and the traditional music world?

JIM: I think the storytelling aspect is what the worlds have in common.  I grew up listening to folk singers and writers like Woody Guthrie, people who could tell a whole story in one three or four minute song, and that's the way the traditional English and Scottish ballads were, the ones that came over from the British Isles, and got transformed in the Appalachians, and a lot of that traditional music that you still hear traditionalists play today, goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.  And that's the only way they had to tell a story, was through song, or just oral history.  Musical theatre is different, and my learning curve along the way has been not to write sixteen songs, and have each one of them tell their own story.  Pump Boys sort of does that, because it is a day in the life, and functions like a revue.  But in a book musical, you have to write songs that just get you from one place to the next.  You don't want to tell a complete story, necessarily, you just want to tell the part of the story that needs to be told right then.  So I think a musical as a whole -- a book musical -- really amounts to one big, storytelling song, with lots of different parts.

BB: Well, this is great, but before we continue, maybe we should have that first performance in the studio.  Do you want to set up the song, and introduce who is performing this?

JIM: Well, the show begins very casually, the narrator Jim – Jim Summerford, a local layer – is standing in The Frog Pad, which is the place where everyone sort of gathers in Tippo, and kind of their "Cheers" if you will, the southeast Georgia "Cheers" -- and he starts to tell the story of how the town has fallen on hard times, and they need to do something to bring their town back; they love the place, they love The Frog Pad, but they don't have any way to express their cultural heritage, and get tourists to come in, and pay the money for it.  So they're on the verge of trying to figure this out, and that's the way our show begins.

KATE: And our wonderful actor is Richard Binder.

BB: And singing backup is?

KATE: Mariand Torres, who is playing Mona.

Click here to listen to "Tippo" in Broadway Bullet vol. 120

 

BB: Kate, you are balancing producing and directing this show.

KATE: Yes, I am.

BB: And how is that?

KATE: It's going beautifully, actually.  I think that we've made an incredible team together.

BB: What happens when the director wants to spend more than the producer will let her?

KATE: (laughs) There's a big conflict of interest there.  I'm the artistic director for Ground Up Productions, I'm also in some of the productions -- I haven't been in any for, I guess about a year at this point, but this was a project that we had a lot of people on board for from the beginning.  We did the reading in November last year, and our musical director Rob McCulskey was on board then, and Jim and Patricia were on board.  Our resident director – and she's a partial producer - of Ground Up Productions, Laura Stanley, was on board.  We've had a lot of people on board this project, and it was just really important that we had this really great family-feel because it's what this story is about.  And so, we all just tried to create this atmosphere of warmth and fun because it's really where this show needs to grow from.  So, we've all been on board, and it's just been a really great, great experience.

BB: So why -- this is only running like three weeks.

KATE: It's actually just running for three and a half weeks, but we have very high hopes for it.  It's the kind of thing that once people realize what it is, we think a lot of people will jump on board; it's something really special. 

BB: All right, so before we continue, we've got another song from the show.  Do you want to set this one up?

KATE: Sure.  This is sung by Mariand Torres, who is playing our Mona.  This takes place in Act One when she has had her first day in court, and she's taken back to her jail cell, and it's just a late, hot, summer night in Tippo, and she's singing about how she has a new love, and how she's locked up in jail. (laughs)

Click here to listen to "Lockdown Blues" in Broadway Bullet vol. 120

 

BB: Great.  So Jim, now that you're back, and you've done another musical, is this your last one?

JIM: Oh, definitely not.

BB: Or is it going to be another twenty years? (laughs)

JIM: No, I have a new musical in the works that's very different from this one.  It's a more serious musical, albeit with, certainly, moments of humor.  It's based on a true life story, John Wesley Powell – the explorer – who led a group of men down the Colorado River in 1869 to try to find a passage into the Grand Canyon, which at that time was the last unmapped portion of the United States.  And all of these men were Civil War veterans, and they're all bearing physical and emotional wounds of the war, so that kind of gets played out on the journey on the river.  And Powell's wife was a remarkable woman, she figures prominently in the story.  She was the first woman to ever climb Pike's Peak, she was an explorer in her own right, and during his trip down the river, she's spending time in Washington, lobbying as a kind of early environmentalist for sense and sensibility in the exploration of the West.  There was a theory going around back then, called rain follows the plow.  In other words, all the deserts of the west would yield moisture, if only you plow them, the moisture would rise, rain clouds would form, rain would fall, and the deserts would become oases.  That was actually taught seriously about in the U.S. Congress. (laughter)  So, there are these parallel journeys, and issues about men coming home from the war, what they go through when they come home froma war, and environmental issues, both of which have kind of taken center stage in our news recently.  So, I'm writing this will Bill Hartman, who wrote the book for BigRiver – the Huckleberry Finn musical.

BB: Another one of my favorites, yes.

JIM: Me too.

BB: I had Daniel Jenkins on a little bit ago, that was fun.

JIM: Dan Jenkins, Roger Miller score, fantastic.  So, we're hoping to do a reading -- even if it's a living room reading of that -- sometime soon. We're maybe one song away from having that happen. 

BB: So back with People vs. Mona here.

JIM: Yeah.

BB: What are the dates they can catch this, and all that stuff?

KATE: Last night was our first preview, which was July 12th, and it runs through August 4th at the Abingdon Theater, which is at 312 W. 36th Street, and there is no Monday show, shows are all at 8:30, there is a 2:30 Sunday matinee, and for some strange reason, there is no show on Tuesday, the 17th.  (laughter) So it runs for the next, I guess, about three weeks.

BB: And Jim, I'm wondering -- I know you play a little bit, and you sing -- I was wondering if I could possibly put you on the spot -- in addition to the cast -- and get you to maybe perform a number from this.

JIM: Oh sure, I'd be happy to.

BB: What would you like to perform?

JIM: From The People vs. Mona?  Well "Lockdown Blues" has already been sung, and better than I can sing it.  (laughter)  Can I borrow a guitar from you?

BB: Yeah, sure. 

JIM: Looks like you've got a couple of them.

BB: Yes.

JIM: This is the very last song in The People vs. Mona.  The trial is over, and the people of Tippo, Georgia have embarked on a new cultural, tourism, heritage folk, blues, our history campaign to get people to come to Tippo, spend money, and live in their town.  So this song kind of plays out at the end of the show with the bows, and stuff like that.  And some of the items in it are clues in the show, so if they don't make any sense, that's what they are. 

Click here to listen to "Come on Down to Tippo" in Broadway Bullet vol. 120

 

(applause)

BB: All right, you definitely made me very happy there. (laughter) Encore, private performance.

KATE: Fantastic.

BB: It sounded great. Best of luck with the show.

JIM: Thank you.

KATE: Thank you so much. 

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You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet Volume 120. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

 or MP3 Feed with XML

First two photos by Randy Morrison; last three courtesy of Sam Rudy Media Relations


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