By Rob Hartmann
After seeing SOUTHERN COMFORT at CAP21, I sat down to have a conversation with the writers – bookwriter/lyricist Dan Collins and composer Julianne Wick Davis. We met at Incognito Bistro, next door to the CAP21 space, just before a performance.
ROB HARTMANN: So – how did you get involved with the project to begin with?
DAN COLLINS: Our show Wood was in NYMF (the New York Musical Theatre Festival) in 2008, and Tom Caruso was our director. He had optioned the rights to Southern Comfort a couple of years before with Bob DuSold, and he approached us after that production ended and asked us if we would watch the documentary and see if we could find a way into it as a musical.
RH: Had you seen the documentary before then?
DC: No, I had never heard of it before.
JULIANNE WICK DAVIS: I had seen it years ago on HBO – I don’t think I had watched the whole thing, but I saw the beginning with Robert in his truck, and I was really fascinated by it.
RH: So when you sat down to think about how to put this on a stage – what were you thinking?
DC: When we first watched the documentary, it was interesting trying to think of it as a musical. We weren’t sure how we were going to do it, and if we were even going to be able to do it - if it was even appropriate to sing – but we were certainly compelled by the characters and the story.
The first song we wrote was a song called “I’m Goin’”, which Robert sings near the end of the piece when he and Lola are going to the Southern Comfort ball. And I think that’s when we first felt we could maybe get into it.
JWD: Dan handed me a lyric, and I thought, I know what to do. And we presented that to Tom and Bob.
DC: The documentary is broken into seasons, which we used in the musical. We had this concept of having a folk band onstage, because we were trying to figure out how to bring music into it. When you watch the documentary it seems kind of awkward for these people to start singing. So we wanted to bring the music in somehow with this onstage folk band, and we had them just sing all the seasons, because the documentary is already divided into seasons. We gave ourselves a break from aggressive story songs.
RH: I don’t remember from seeing the documentary ten years ago – how much of the musical book is straight from the film?
DC: There were a lot of changes. It was really a challenge – I’d say in the early drafts we really tried to be as true to the documentary as we could. But there are some things that, you know, are compelling in the documentary for reasons that aren’t musical-theater-stage-worthy.
JWD: Kate gave us the transcripts of everything that she filmed.
DC: There were a couple extra characters in the documentary, too, that were truly the people who took Robert to all the different doctors, but we really just collapsed that into Lola. And Maxwell and Robert had had kind of a falling out in the documentary, but in the musical it’s much larger – we had Maxwell not go to Southern Comfort, which didn’t happen in the documentary. So there are some big changes like that, trying to give it a more dramatic arc.
RH: I saw the reading you had at Playwrights Horizons earlier in the year – it sounded to me like some things were adjusted musically since then.
JWD: Yes, we changed some keys for Annette (O’Toole.) We did that immediately after the Playwrights reading, when we knew we were going to be doing the production at CAP21. I did some note adjustments, too, on some things – not so much because I was trying to tailor it for her, but because it made more sense dramaturgically. She really wanted to work on it. She was totally immersed in it.
RH: She’s so amazing in that role.
JWD: She’s a real worker bee. She’s somebody who completely immerses herself in it. She was so dedicated to it. It’s a wonderful thing to watch because of that. She’s so into channeling Robert Eads.
RH: I’m curious, when you were first thinking about writing the show, how you decided on the gender of the actors. It’s interesting that Robert is played by a woman, but Maxwell is played by a man - when both are female to male individuals.
JWD: Well, you know that’s been through several different configurations of gender. One of the things that influenced us in casting was something we heard early on: when Bob and Tom acquired the rights from Kate Davis, she had just gotten those rights back from someone who was going to do a feature film of the documentary. It was going to star Sissy Spacek as Robert and Alan Cumming as Lola. We thought, “Huh. A female playing Robert Eads…” It made sense to us, because Robert Eads dying of ovarian cancer – it seemed right that Robert should be played by a woman. So it’s always been that way. And then of course because Lola is still in transition, it made sense for a male to play Lola. And for the others we were back and forth. Maxwell at one point was played by a female. A lot of different things have influenced us – one is, you watch the documentary, and these are guys.
RH: I had this experience watching the show, and I polled people I was with, and they were feeling this, too – about midway through the show, I had this experience where I started to forget whose gender was really what. It’s a real testament to the actors.
JWD: Our goal was to blur the lines of gender with the casting. People know when they walk in the door that Annette O’Toole is playing Robert – there’s really no way around that, other than that initial moment of seeing her transformed into Robert Eads.
RH: I understand that Cas and Stephanie [Cas and Stephanie Piotrowski, who are depicted in the musical] came to see it – what was that like? Had you met anyone involved with the documentary before?
JWD: We met Lola about a year ago. She was great – very supportive. She didn’t want to know all the details necessarily, but she had the script and the demo. We asked some questions about her relationship with Maxwell – her relationship with Maxwell was really strained after Robert died. And Maxwell just died about a year ago. With Stephanie and Cas it was interesting, they were kind of shell shocked.
DC: I think it was a little overwhelming for them.
JWD: Cas was feeling sensitive about the memory of Robert and Maxwell – you know, that there not be anything negative about them since, you know, they were gone.
DC: And in the documentary, I think that Robert comes off almost Christ-like in a way – he’s always saying wise things and is always very grounded. We did feel like in the musical we had to give him some more human flaws too. Nothing major – he’s still a pretty good guy.
RH: What was it like when you were trying to find song spots – was that something you figured out together?
DC: Originally a lot of it came from trying to bring the band in and figuring out how that could work, because “Bird” we wrote early on too – when we first thought about the band, we thought, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have Lola sing a song with a female from the band – make that work together.
RH: And you have that effect in “Barbara” too – Robert singing with a guy in the band.
DC: “Barbara” we wrote originally just for a male member of the band. Actually it morphed from – I think originally it was for Robert, then we wrote it for a male member of the band – and then we worked it together. But having the band there was just really helpful for me to write a lot of the lyrics – it just kind of led us into it musically. We didn’t feel so cheesy having some of these characters who we knew so well from the documentary who would not sing – singing.
RH: It seemed very fluid, the transition into the music each time.
DC: We also got to work with the band from day one in rehearsal, which doesn’t usually happen. So we could try, “Let’s bring in the music here,” and “Let’s try underscoring this.” Of course there was a certain point where we couldn’t do that any more because they also had to memorize everything, so it was kind of a catch-22, because later in the process, any time you’d change a key or cut pieces out of the music, they would have to re-memorize all the music.
JWD: Those were not happy moments for the band. Especially about halfway through, when we realized one of Jeff McCarthy’s songs needed to go up a step – it really had more intensity in it up a step. It’s not like it was going to G flat or something like that, but they had already started memorizing – I just didn’t want anybody’s heads to explode. There were some changes that we actually wanted to do past the third week, and I said, we can’t do it. Because they had already memorized it.
RH: It makes such a difference with the band not having pages flipping in front of them.
JWD: It’s amazing what they were able to do. There’s a lot of meter change stuff in some of the songs – I just felt guilty, I thought, we just can’t do that to them. For this short of a rehearsal process, this is not a fair thing. So, you know, if there’s life for the piece, then it’ll be an easier thing to do later on.
RH: So let’s talk about your musical process … when you first sat down to think about the show musically, what were you thinking about?
JWD: Knowing the location of the show, I knew I needed to do something that was more folk based.
RH: Toccoa is north of Atlanta, right?
JWD: And it’s kind of backwoods. So I drew on something that I really love to do and actually used to do before I came to New York, which is more of the singer-songwriter style – I grew up listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, I love the Indigo Girls… You know, they say it’s a “folk-bluegrass score” – that’s what people have been saying. There are hints of things that are bluegrass, but it’s not a “bluegrass score.”
RH: I wrote that also – I think it’s that shorthand way to hang it on a peg – but nobody’s playing the washtub.
JWD: Nobody’s playing the washtub, we don’t have a banjo …
RH: I found the bluegrass influence more in the vocal style than in the instrumentation. Like the song “Barbara” feels bluegrass to me.
JWD: I thought it also needed to have a country influence. Although country crosses over into so many different things now, it’s like, what really is country anymore?
RH: It feels like there are some influences of pre-1970 country.
JWD: Right. There’s a little bit of a Johnny Cash influence. Especially in accompaniment figures. I was writing it on piano, but for so much of it, I was imagining a guitar would be playing this figure, and the only thing I know to do is kind of this on the piano (making an arpeggiation finger-rolling gesture.) So the score was a combination of all those things, all the things that I really loved
to be able to do and get an opportunity to do. That, I think, was one of the things that really excited me about doing the project before we even got deep into figuring out how we were going to do it – this could be fun to do this.
RH: Now, you’re from Texas.
JWD: I’m from Texas – San Antonio – but, you know, people that don’t live in Texas think that means something more than it is. You know, (laughs) I grew up in a city, just like everybody else –
RH: -- you didn’t ride your horse to the feed store.
JWD: No. But we did get school off the day that the rodeo came to town.
RH: We had that in Arizona, too. “Rodeo Days.”
JWD: “Rodeo Days”! Where the whole school could go and watch the parade when the rodeo came through town. And I was probably around a lot of people who wore boots and cowboy hats – more so than people who grew up around here would have been. But other than that -- I grew up in a family where my grandmother was an opera singer and my grandfather was a classical composer. I played classical piano. There wasn’t a lot of country music or folk music in my house. So I don’t know if “Texas” is a fair thing to say that influenced this score.
RH: But maybe it’s a familiarity with a certain culture. I mean, Georgia is very different from Texas –
JWD: Yeah, but that “good ol’ boy” mentality is very similar. And that was something that I totally understood when I watched the documentary. I completely understood “good ol’ boy” and how these guys – that’s what they were hoping to be, because that’s what they knew – good ol’ boys. I understood people like that.
RH: And it explains something in the story – I think it’s interesting that they don’t move away from Toccoa. Their feeling is, I want to create this life where I’m comfortable.
JWD: - because it’s home.
Southern Comfort runs through October 29 at the CAP21 Black Box Theater, 18 West 18th Street. Show times are Wednesday-Saturday at 7 PM.
Tickets are $18 and are available through OvationTix or online at http://www.cap21.org/.