Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie Captured in a Musical Coming to Stages

Andy Tierstein, David M. Lutken, Helen Russell and Darcie Deaville in the New York production of Woody Sez.
Andy Tierstein, David M. Lutken, Helen Russell and Darcie Deaville in the New York production of Woody Sez. Photo by Wendy Mutz

If Woody Guthrie were alive today, what would he make of the United States and its president?

According to performer and writer David M. Lutken, "Woody would be in one respect probably upset with the way things are going but in another respect, he'd be, as my father would say, 'in high cotton.'"

And actually, the Trump family wasn't unknown to Guthrie, who died in 1967. Late in his life he wrote a disparaging song about Donald Trump's dad after Fred Trump segregated the public housing development he built in New York City. The song is titled "Old Man Trump" and is none too subtle, which you can see if you scroll down to the end of this story.

Woody Guthrie was a womanizer, drank too much and, as a result of the Huntington’s disease he inherited from his mother, had a hard time controlling his temper in his later years. He lost his mother to the illness and had both a sister and a daughter die in separate fires, years apart. Married three times, he wasn't the most devoted husband and father.

He was also an American icon, probably our greatest writer of folk songs.

With highlights including “This Land Is Your Land” and his chronicles of Dust Bowl life, Guthrie's story is coming to Stages Repertory Theatre in a regional premiere titled Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.

The musical covers many of the points of the singer-songwriter’s life along with close to 40 of his songs. Lutken, who developed this musical first performed ten years ago and who retains his role as musical director of this production, says he grew up listening to Guthrie’s songs from the age of four. In fact, he was listening to them at some Dallas schools, whose arts and music teachers, he now says tongue in cheek, must have been socialists to have the students listen to all that Guthrie music. (Guthrie said he never joined the Communist Party, but he was close to its precepts and had friends who did.)

“His life was quite difficult in many respects and also quite wonderful," Lutken says. "Also, of course, unique. His particular demons were very, very difficult. I continue to say to folks that it’s always amazing whenever I do the show, that these songs came out of the man who lived that life.” Ben Hope (Stages: Hank Williams) will play the Woody role in the Houston production; Lutken is performing in New York, where the run has just been extended.

"He watched his family disintegrate when he was a young boy, including the terrible death of his sister in a fire, and then he grew up as sort of an itinerant at the beginnings of his adolescence and young adulthood. He got married when he was in Pampa, Texas, to a beautiful young girl named Mary Jennings, but I think at that time really he didn't understand what that meant. And there was a lot of pressure on everyone at that time because of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl," Lutkin says. "In trying to find a better life for his family, he went to California."

"He was a restless soul."

"What I wanted to show people was more of the arc of his life," Lutken says. "A lot of people are very familiar with a lot of his music. I didn't want it to be a musical review. I wanted it to be a dramatic story of Woody Guthrie's life that adds depth to the meaning of the music and the concepts of his songs."

Performances are scheduled for July 26-September 3 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit$21-$56.

Here's a sample of the "Old Man Trump" lyrics:

"Old Man Trump"
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Ryan Harvey

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain't my home!
No, I just can't pay this rent!
My money's down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain't my home!

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