By Sandra Schulman
Woody Guthrie was many things – a poet, songwriter, occasional hobo.
The new summer musical at Dramaworks, Woody Guthrie’s American Song, follows Guthrie’s coast to coast life using his songs and quotes straight from his journals. The main character of Guthrie is never named; instead, the three stages of his life “are called The Searcher, the Folk Singer, and the Writer, each portrayed by a different actor,” explains actor Sean Powell, who plays one of the incarnations. “That way, each of his stages has a different feel.”
This ensemble musical theater piece uses Guthrie’s own storytelling to create narrative contexts for his music. He was American through and through – the good and the downside, inspired by this country and the people he met who worked and fought to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives as he wandered through it. Guthrie has been gone for more than 50 years, but the issues and challenges are still remarkably timely.
Director Bruce Linser, who also teaches the Dramaworkshop upstairs from the theater, spoke about the choice of the show last week as he showed off the musician actors and the still-in-progress set design.
“We wanted something rousing and uplifting that also spoke to our times for the summer show,” he said. Compiled by Peter Glazer of the University of California-Berkeley, Woody Guthrie’s American Song made its debut in 1989.
“We picked this for the storytelling aspect. It’s a musical with 28 songs, but is really story-driven. The most challenging aspect was finding musician actors who could sing, act and play. We have eight people on stage; there are 20 instruments overall. We really needed to find some strong talented, versatile people. We found some in New York and some locally.”
Linser reached out to radio station WLRN for some suggestions. They referred him to a gold mine – The Lubben Brothers Folk Band, a trio of triplet brothers Joshua, Michael and Tom, who perform throughout South Florida and were in the process of writing and producing their own folk musical when they got the call. The tall, lanky blue-eyed brothers are onstage the whole time and their synchronistic genetic musical chops promise to bring something special to the show.
“We are just musicians in the show with no lines,” Joshua says as the other brothers nod in agreement. “We’re not in the actors union. But we still act as characters in a sense with period costumes and stage presence as we are onstage the whole show. It was a lot of songs to learn but as soon as we started rehearsing a few weeks ago it felt great and just fell into place. We play various folk instruments – dulcimer, fiddle, standup bass.
“We’ve been playing together since we were 5 and while we’ve never done a musical like this, the instruments give us a little bit of a shield of security,” he said/ “The interplay is really fun, and it’s been easy to tweak our sound. It’s also about being real and connecting with people.”
Another cast member, singer and actress Cat Greenfield, said what she has found most striking about the production “is that it is made up almost entirely, from script to score, of Woody’s own writing – taken from his books, his scribblings, his songs, his radio broadcasts, and more – and organized into a show that follows the through-line of his life, in his own words. It’s straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak, as opposed to a show trying to glorify someone, to paint them up to be a god among men, and tell their story in a comfortable, cloying way – this is all the grit and guts and gumption of Woody, through and through.
“And his words are not inspired by just his own point of view, but of the people he met along the way,” she wrote in an email. “They’re the Words of the People, as seen through the lens of someone who made a point of listening when others spoke. And those words encompass the human experience of the common folks of his time … the forgotten, the ignored, the disenfranchised, the rundown, and the hopeful. And they’re words that could have been written yesterday, about what’s happening in our country today. It’s an honor to speak and sing the words of such a storyteller.”
Linser said the revue also has two stories going on at the same time: Guthrie’s life from the Dust Bowl to New York, and then through to his death from Huntington’s chorea in 1967.
“But it’s also the story of America, how it became divided and finding the collective humanity. Woody does what he has to do to see and feel and understand what’s going on with immigration, poverty, deportation,” Linser said. “I think the younger generation will be shocked at how little has changed and why Woody Guthrie is still relevant. The show itself is not political, it’s by turns fun, joyous, and shows a collective humanity. Even the sad songs have hope and pride and strength in them.”
Linser said Guthrie was a “complicated man.”
“He had a real restlessness to him but that made him an artist. He had a need to ramble and roam and that took a toll on his family life – he had three wives and several children, many of whom died young,” he said. “His second wife took him back when he became ill; she took the burden on, knowing his life and work had been important. She saved all his notebooks with thousands of songs.
“Everyone knows his most popular song, ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but my hope is that they will hear some they never knew were his and perhaps find a new favorite. Every folk singer acknowledges his importance, from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger.”
The massive hand-painted new set, with barn-slatted arches of lush but weathered images, is inspired by classic Americana images including those by painter Thomas Hart Benton.
“As the story and scenes move along, the set moves with them,” he explains, pointing out how the painted imagery starts with the trees and fields of Oklahoma on the left side then moves to the urban landscape of New York City on the right. “I wanted it to be poetic, free-flowing, imagistic. It’s an active show with scene changes, choreography and some other surprises I don’t want to reveal. Above all, the music brings about a deep connection to everyone.”
Woody Guthrie’s American Song opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Call 561- 514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Editor’s note: In 2007, reporter Sandra Schulman received a grant from the BMI Woody Guthrie Foundation to produce a book and documentary on folksinger Peter La Farge, who knew Guthrie and visited him in his final years at the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital. Guthrie inspired La Farge to write his most well-known protest song, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, by Johnny Cash.