As I stood in line in 2016 vying for rush tickets to a new musical called Bright Star, pretty much all I knew was that comedy legend Steve Martin co-wrote its bluegrass score. I also knew that, after hearing people line up behind me grumbling about sold out performances of a couple of other new shows called Waitress and Hamilton, my options were drying up fast.
What I didn’t know then was the joy that would fill me once a company in Pittsburgh announced a production of this gem of a musical.
The company in question is Front Porch Theatricals. Bright Star is the first of their dynamic duo of shows (Tony-winning Best Musical Fun Home will follow) coming to the New Hazlett Theater this summer. Their philosophy for this season titled “Family…Secrets” seems to be that most people have plenty (if not too much) of both of those things, so why not sing about them?
Bright Star takes that idea and strums with it. The musical is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and revolves around a woman and a girl named Alice Murphy. We first meet her in the mid-1940s as the stern editor of The Asheville Southern Journal before a flashback introduces us to Alice as a
rebellious, flirty teenager in 1923. The parallel timelines depict Adult Alice becoming a sort of mentor to a young World War II veteran/aspiring writer named Billy Cane and Teen Alice falling in love with/getting pregnant by mayor’s son Jimmy Ray Dobbs.
To tell you more would be to ruin what is arguably musical theater’s equivalent of an Avengers: Endgame spoiler, so I’ll refrain.
For me with Bright Star, there were even more surprises than some of its jaw-dropping plot developments. Initially, I had no idea that Steve Martin was a multiple Grammy Award-winning Bluegrass musician. He collaborated on two of his most recent albums (Love Has Come For You and So Familiar) with fellow singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. A handful of the tracks on those albums were either interpolated into the score of Bright Star or taken from the score to be recorded for the first time by Martin and Brickell.
Three years ago, though, I was skeptical that a major star like Martin had this huge talent that had been so hidden to me. For Bright Star, he is credited as co-composer and librettist while Brickell is listed as the sole lyricist. I felt there was a chance that the bigger name was taking credit for work he might not have contributed to in a meaningful way.
After all, his work as a writer is generally more well-known. Among many other projects, he is co-screenwriter of The Jerk and playwright of both Picasso at the Lapin Agile and the star-studded Broadway production of Meteor Shower.
All my worries were cast aside when, during intermission, Martin, banjo in hand, unexpectedly joined the orchestra onstage for a jam session. The energy in the theater was truly off the charts. He was excellent, and I enjoyed a hearty helping of crow after the performance.
Music Director Doug Levine predicts that the same electricity will jolt the Front Porch cast and crew when the bluegrass band joins them in rehearsal.
“And, of course, the reason being that the score is not pastiche or cleverly evocative of the Bluegrass style…it’s the real McCoy,” he added.
With the help of Front Porch producer Bruce Smith, he found this Bright Star’s “dazzlingly authentic” bluegrass quartet: Marina Pendleton (fiddle), Jim Scott (banjo), Bryce Rabideau (mandolin), and Ken Karsh (guitar).
Without the carrot of boosting ticket sales for his show before him, don’t expect Martin to pop up at the Hazlett. Either way, in a year when Hamilton sucked up all the available awards, press, and money, it seems his efforts in the past were in vain despite the considerable buzz his show had.
After its initial workshop at Vassar College, Bright Star had its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2014. The show had one more tryout in Washington, D.C. before finally opening on Broadway in February 2016. Despite earning five Tony nominations including Best Musical, the musical closed after only 109 performances.
Still, the show has lived on with many of its original stars and design elements in tact via a reunion concert and national tour.
What makes a show with a devoted fan base run longer on tour than it did on Broadway? The Hamilton effect? Bluegrass music and Americana not appealing to primarily Blue audiences in a tumultuous election year?
Erin Lindsey Krom, who stars as Alice for Front Porch, says yes to both. She feels that nowadays most musicals are “compared rather than assessed on their own merit”. As both a Pittsburgh native and former NYC resident, she has insight into the psychology of both such audiences.
“I don’t believe Pittsburghers abide pretense and, conversely, New Yorkers almost seek it out. For that reason alone, I think Bright Star will go over far better here than it did in New York”.
If the show’s post-Broadway history is any indication, Krom might be onto something. Director Nick Mitchell seeks to ensure this by celebrating the “rich history of oral tradition” that both theatre and bluegrass find their roots in with his production.
Like writers writing about writing, a director telling a story about storytelling can be a tedious exercise. The exception is when it’s an especially “good” story like Alice promises in Bright Star’s rousing opening number. By the final blackout, Pittsburgh audiences will know she was right and acknowledge that, when it comes to loving, losing, and surviving in life, she (as she beckons us to tell her in a later lyric) is indeed not alone.
Bright Star runs at the New Hazlett Theater from May 17-26. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.