When Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley Theatre, decides to do a brand-new musical, he doesn't tap-dance around.
Getting right down to business, he hooks up with the hugely successful Frank Wildhorn, the only American composer with two original shows running simultaneously on Broadway, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Jekyll and Hyde. And the two of them stew up an absolutely audacious idea -- a musical version of the Civil War.
But this musical won't be a Gone with the Wind; there will be no historical romance, no almond-eyed, hard-hearted Scarletts, not even a conventional story line. Instead, Boyd and Wildhorn and their collaborator Jack Murphy decided to do that most dangerous of all theatrical deeds:
The story, the characters and the music of the resulting piece, The Civil War, are all based in what the writers hope will be an "emotional reality" rather than a historical reality. Looking for inspiration, the three traveled the battlefields of the South and gazed over the wide fields where hundreds of thousands of Americans died.
They read letters and diaries, newspapers and political pamphlets. And as they read, they began to write, trying to account for the disparate truths and different beliefs that fueled the Civil War.
There's the Southern soldier longing to go home to Virginia: "I see her shining," he sings, "on a blackbird's silver wings. And I can feel Virginia, running through my soul, when the flag unfurls, and the drummers start their long, long roll."
There's the slave husband and wife, sold to different masters, who sing their good-byes to each other: "Don't cry for what might have been, there ain't enough tears to empty the ocean of my sorrow."
Not only did the writers include the anonymous folk of the war, they searched the archives of some of the war's most significant heroes. In a powerful speech, ex-slave and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass comes to life on stage and tells the audience, "I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them. I ask you, are the principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence extended to us?"