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NY Public Library's Theatre Division Administrator Misy Singson on The Spitfire Grill


BroadwayWorld continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Misy Singson, Theatre Division Administrator, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on: Political Satires in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Theatre on The Spitfire Grill.

As the nation reflects on the 15th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, I'm also reminded of how New York City responded culturally after the events, and the theater season that year. While theaters were closed immediately after the attacks, the Great White Way always finds a way to bounce back; as they say, the show must go on. Many New Yorkers looked to theater for a welcome respite, which was what I did that season when I saw The Spitfire Grill. Many shows off and on Broadway thrived and even became long running hits from that season. The Spitfire Grill did not, but the show certainly had a lasting impression on me.

I first discovered the show as a teenager, seeing it at the Duke on 42nd Street, after its opening. Intrigued by the show's mix of mystery and compassion, I revisited the music through a vocal teacher who had heard the soundtrack while perusing musicals for songs for students.

Despite its limited run and mixed reviews, The Spitfire Grill is well remembered by those who saw it. It was also up against shows like Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, the satirical Urinetown, the Mike Nichol's helmed The Seagull and a little show called Mamma Mia. It's not a commercially successful musical and it had its obstacles, however the show lives on in its memorable music. Although not many people know the show in its entirety, but most musical theatre students and auditioners know the song "Shine" for its driving, fluid melody, belted out with spirit by Garret Long, who played Percy. Other memorable numbers like the duet "Colors of Paradise," "Ring Around the Moon" as well as "Forest for the Trees," (originally performed on the soundtrack by a then-newbie Steven Pasquale) are now songs used by optimistic audition singers. However, I favor the song "Wild Bird," a bittersweet, lamenting lullaby, sang beautifully by Liz Callaway's character Shelby. It's a moment when you see the want to comfort and help others; a glimmer of hopeful, human love in a shattered world.

"It is, I think, a case of the right musical at the right moment," stated reviewer David Barbour of Entertainment Design in November 2001, "The show's strength is its depiction of troubled people who reach down inside themselves and find their fundamental decency. These days when I see New Yorkers treating each other with never-before seen kindness, the theme resonates. (As it did with the audience; at the performance I attended, there was a standing ovation.) It was a vivid reminder that, all times, all we really have is each other."

Based on the 1995 movie by Lee David Zlotoff, the show follows a young girl with a dark past named Percy who longs for a second chance at life. She arrives in Gilead, Wisconsin, a small rural town that struggles after it tragically loses hope after a series of disappointments. Though she's warned by the sheriff that Gilead will be a hard place to make a new start, Percy is reluctantly taken in by Hannah, a crusty widow who owns The Spitfire Grill and put to work as her waitress. Suddenly thrust into a world of small town gossip and suspicion, Percy is instantly scrutinized by residents especially Hannah's nephew Caleb. When Hannah suffers a broken leg, it's up to ill-prepared Percy to run The Spitfire. With the help of Caleb's shy wife, Shelby, The Spitfire brings back some life to Gilead. Through the kindness shown by the women at The Spitfire, Percy finds light and happiness while also guiding Shelby to find inner strength and console Hannah with her own painful past.

The Spitfire Grill was initially produced by the George Street Playhouse in 2000. It moved into the city and opened at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of David Saint with musical direction by Andrew Wilder. Written by Richard Rodgers Award winner Fred Alley (who passed away prior to the show's NY opening) and James Valcq, the score is contemporary with a driving Midwestern twist, consisting of a small band of piano, mandolin, violin, cello and an accordion. The cast featured Liz Callaway, Mary Gordon, Garrett Long, Steven Pasquale, Armand Schultz, Stephen Sinclair and Phyllis Somerville. Additionally, the set was designed by Michael Anania and was costumed by Theoni V. Aldredge. The show garnered two Drama Desk Award nominations for its pair of leading ladies, along with an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.

You can find out more about The Spitfire Grill at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Theatre Division holds a clippings file with reviews, press, articles and playbills from both the New York and George Street Playhouse productions. The collection also includes photos by Joan Marcus as well as the Playwrights Horizon's cast recording which is now out of print. The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive also holds the archive recording for research use.

Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections

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