New Work in Progress: STAGGER LEE

This month, we check in with Lee Trull, Director of New Play Development at Dallas Theater Center, as he tells us about their upcoming production of Stagger Lee, by Will Power and Justin Ellington, which was a previous recipient of the NAMT National Fund for New Musicals Project Development Grant.
A highlight this season is the world premiere of Stagger Lee, a musical that takes its title from the century-old folk song that became a Number One R&B hit for Lloyd Price in 1959. The story spans the 20th Century, tracing mythical characters in their quest to achieve the American Dream. The deep-seated themes of racism and the raw power of human will are sure to give you chills. And the music—from Joplin-inspired tunes to R&B and hip-hop—will definitely get your feet moving. 
How did the development of Stagger Lee come about for Dallas Theater Center?
Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts gives out an award called the Meadows Prize.  It’s a commission to an artist in the middle of his or her career for a new piece to be produced at an arts institution in Dallas. Meadows approached us about six years ago to see if there was a writer we would be interested in developing a piece with. The obvious choice was Will Power. The way his plays examine social justice and American history/mythology in highly theatrical ways fits perfectly with DTC’s mission. Since then, Will joined our staff through a Mellon Foundation Grant as Playwright-In-Residence and joined SMU’s faculty as Artist-In-Residence. Stagger Lee grew out of that early commission. It started as a play and grew into a big musical.

How did you assemble the writing team for this show?
Will brought Justin Ellington on to the team as co-composer. They were long-time collaborators. Will also wrote the book and lyrics.
The show has been in development at Dallas Theater Center for a couple years. How has it changed and grown over the years and what were the development steps?
We started off with a number of 29-hour readings followed by extensive notes and months of rewrites. Then we hired Patricia McGregor to direct it and produced a three-week workshop with some costumes and choreography and props and a small group of invited guests (this was year three). In May of 2014, we did a 29-hour reading in NY followed by a five week workshop that fall. We’ve been rehearsing the full production since Christmas week and open Jan 30th. The script has changed in all the good ways: higher stakes for the characters, a tighter plot and new difficult/hopeful ending. 

The show is now ready for its world premiere at DTC.  What part are you excited to see in front of your audience?
I just want the world to see it as a whole piece. It jumps time periods and styles in a wild, ferocious way. We are taken on a journey though a century of American history, but we are following a single narrative. There are massive set and costume changes, sudden shifts in musical styles (folk, gospel, blues, doo-wop, funk, hip hop…) and strong central characters.

What makes Stagger Lee an ideal show for DTC?
We aim to start a conversation in our city. Stagger Lee takes a hard look at race and the many pitfalls of pursuing the American dream. This will spark a dialogue in our audience that we believe will spread to the broader community.

Why should people head to DTC to catch Stagger Lee?
It’s a big, wildly ambitious show. It is an eighteen-person cast with an eight-member band, and a new musical written by Will Power and Justin Ellington that tells a single narrative about five people trying to make it in America that begins in Mississippi in 1895, jumps to 1910 in St Louis, to 1922 in Harlem, to 1950 in Chicago, to 1973 in Oakland, to 1987 in Detroit, to 2015 in Dallas.

For more information about Dallas Theater Center’s upcoming production of Stagger Lee, visit the DTC website

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