Sneak Peek

Asolo Rep Announces World Premiere Musical Knoxville

The creative team bringing James Agee's A Death in the Family to life includes Frank Galati, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

By Kay Kipling February 6, 2019

Knoxville creative team Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Frank Galati.

The same triumvirate responsible for the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime—director Frank Galati, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (working also with book writer Terrence McNally on that show)—is now at work on a world premiere musical to be presented by Asolo Repertory Theatre in the spring of 2020.

The announcement was made Wednesday morning at a media and donor event by producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards, who introduced the creative team from the stage of the Mertz Theatre. Galati, who will also direct, is adapting the musical's book from James Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, a Pulitzer Prize winner that was also the source for the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation, All the Way Home, by Tad Mosel, which was later filmed. Ahrens and Flaherty (also behind the musicals Once On This Island and Anastasia) are crafting the show’s music, which they say is a “casual” score rooted in “people in real moments in time”—specifically, the Knoxville of 1915 where the boy James Agee grew up. (Agee’s prose-poem Knoxville: The Summer of 1915, originally written some years before the novel, serves as a prologue to the published book and on its own was turned into music by composer Samuel Barber.)

Knoxville is envisioned as a small-scale “chamber” musical, with a cast of 11 or 12, who will not only act and sing but also play instruments on the stage, reminiscent of how the residents of a small town in that era might sit on their front porches singing, strumming a guitar or making percussion sounds on a box, the songwriters say. Ahrens said that it’s often considered that while operas are tragedies, “Musicals are joy,” adding that their concept of the new work is about “hope, redemption, and finding a way forward” after that death in the family takes place, along with a “quest for faith. And it shows that people who don’t agree can still love each other.”

That is what helps to make the musical “universal” in the words of Flaherty, “while still very specific to the time and place of Knoxville 1915.” A sense of place and community is central, while also presenting, as Galati expressed it, “like the work by James Joyce, a portrait of the artist [Agee] as a young man.”

Claybourne Elder, who has performed on Broadway in Torch Song, Sunday in the Park with George and Bonnie and Clyde, delivered a sneak peek version of a song from Knoxville, “Outside Your Window,” backed by Ahrens, Flaherty and other musicians, in a moment from early in the show, when the family’s father, Jay, receives a 3 a.m. phone call that forces him to leave home to be at the bedside of his own possibly dying father. Elder will perform in a workshop in June 2019 here that precedes the 2020 premiere. Casting and production dates will be announced later.

Edwards said at the Wednesday event that making the announcement was one of the “rare and thrilling things I get to do.” The world premiere is made possible by a grant from The Roy Cockrum Foundation, which enables theaters “to reach beyond their normal scope of activities and undertake ambitious productions.”

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