UNC Presents World Premiere of New JOHNNY JOHNSON Musical, 11/20-24
It is World War I. The United States of America, having pledged to remain neutral, is pulled into the fight in order to make the world safe for democracy "over there." Lowly American tombstone cutter, Johnny Johnson, has been persuaded to enlist in the U.S. army both by his sweetheart, Minny Belle Tompkins, and by President Woodrow Wilson's promise of "a war to end all wars." But confronted by the horrors of the trenches in France, he is outraged at the absurdity of it all, and by dint of laughing-gas, he fools the Allied generals into calling a cease-fire. Johnny is arrested, shipped back to America, and locked up in a lunatic asylum for his "peace monomania." Released some twenty years later, he makes a living selling handmade toys as the trumpets of war once more sound in the distance.
This premiere features modern dance created by choreographer Heather Tatreau from UNC's Department of Exercise and Sport Science. Additionally the flexible set design by Julia Warren is saturated with archival photos projected onto non-traditional surfaces and curated by Cameron Kania. Director Serena Ebhardt's vision reveals the context of Johnny Johnson's journey by including relevant historical and cultural events of the time period not mentioned in the text - from silent film stars to lynchings to women's suffrage. The cast is composed of UNC Students, 18 - 22 years-old, the same age of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the "war to end all wars" one-hundred years ago.
When the German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill sought exile in the United States in September 1935, he wanted to continue his work in musical theater begun by way of his collaborations in Berlin in the late 1920s with Bertholt Brecht, including Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). These were hard-hitting political works that used music in new theatrical ways to support a radical political agenda.
In New York, Weill teamed up with the left-wing Group Theatre, who put him in contact with the prominent North Carolina playwright, Paul Green, who at that time was on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Group's first production (in 1931) had been Green's The House of Connelly, and his interests in theatrical music were well known. Weill visited Chapel Hill in May 1936 (staying at the Carolina Inn), and during the summer he and Green worked together with the Group on Johnny Johnson, which opened on Broadway on 19 November, 1936 (Lee Strasberg was the director). It was intended to be the first of three collaborations between the composer and playwright; in 1937, Green asked Weill to write the music for The Lost Colony (1937), and that same year they worked on a historical pageant celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. constitution-but neither came to fruition, and The Lost Colony's music was instead written mostly by the North Carolina composer Lamar Stringfield.
Johnny Johnson was picked up with some enthusiasm by the Federal Theatre Project, with productions in Boston and Los Angeles in May 1937. Here Green and Weill sought to restore some of the drastic cuts to the work that the Group Theatre had made in the run up to the premiere: given that the Group was committed to Stanislavski's acting "method," it had grown more and more nervous about the music. However, that more complete FTP version of Johnny Johnson has since lain hidden in the archives; those few productions of the work since 1936-37 were based on an incomplete, inadequate text.
Some of this archival material survives in the Southern Historical Collection in UNC's Wilson Library, some in the National Archives (College Park, MD), and some in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University. These newly uncovered sources provided the basis for the critical edition of Johnny Johnson prepared by Tim Carter, David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Music at UNC and recently issued by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. This edition won the Claude V. Palisca Award of the American Musicological Society for an outstanding scholarly edition or translation in the field of musicology published during 2012.
The world premiere of the new Johnny Johnson is led by a dedicated production team. Serena Ebhardt, Paul & Elizabeth Green Scholar and UNC alumna, serves as director. Dr. Louise Toppin, professor and chair of the UNC music department, serves as musical director. Heather Tatreau serves as choreographer. Dr. Evan Feldman serves as conductor. David Navalinsky, director of undergraduate productions of the UNC Department of Dramatic Art serves as producer.
Johnny Johnson is a major collaboration between UNC's Department of Dramatic Art and Department of Music and is part a year-long conversation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during 2014-2015 focused on the legacy of World War I. The World War I Centenary Project features undergraduate and graduate courses, seminars, lectures, conferences, workshops, exhibitions, dramatic performances, music and dance events, and workshops for K-12 teachers. For more information, visit www.iah.unc.edu/WWI.
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