This month, we caught up with John Jiler and Georgia Stitt, the writers of 2010 Festival show Big Red Sun to check in with them before the show receives its world premiere at NAMT member 11th Hour Theatre Company. The show received a Writers Residency Grant from NAMT’s National Fund for New Musicals in our 2015-2016 Granting Cycle.
The last time we checked in with you about the show, you were about to have a concert at 11th Hour. Now, 11th Hour is about to produce the show’s world premiere! What has made 11th Hour a great partner as you’ve developed the show and worked towards this moment?
JOHN JILER: 11th Hour is a bit of a throwback in the results-now world of modern theatre. They develop things organically over a period of—in our case—years. This is enormously important in the sense of being sure the blueprint is sound before erecting the building. But equally important, they’re saying to us, the writers: we believe in you!
GEORGIA STITT: I agree that what has been significant for us is that about three years ago 11th Hour invited us into a development process that would result in a production, so every rewrite we did in conjunction with them was about crafting a show that fit both our vision of what we wanted and their vision of how they could pull it off. I can’t state enough how much of a difference it makes to the growth of the show to know that someone is eventually going to build a set. Once 11th Hour signed on, we were no longer writing in the abstract. We had hard deadlines, we had budgets, and we had tickets to sell, and so we figured out how to deliver the materials.
What changes has the show undergone in the past few years?
JILER: Megan O’Brien, the resident director of 11th Hour, has held our feet to the fire vis-a-vis answering the age-old question ‘whose play is it?’ and having found that answer, making us narrow our focus so that the arc of the show is straight and true. A constant outside eye is a gift from God!
STITT: Yep—if you remember the show, it’s always been about a son (Harry) and a father (Eddie). And also a mother (Helen). And also their band mate (James). But once we committed to our protagonist (spoiler: it’s the son), everyone else’s arc through the show demanded a different kind of scrutiny. Also, interestingly, when we started writing the show, I thought it was about how America changed between the 1940s and the 1960s as told through the changes in its music. That’s still in there, but that description sounds like a history lesson and not like a piece of theater. Now that the show really is about Harry’s search for the truth, we’re able to dig into questions about the importance of truth and the cost of its absence. Even though we’ve been working on this piece for ages, it finally feels to me like it’s about the issues we’re facing right now, in 2018. Who are you if you don’t know the truth of your life?
What about the show are you most excited to share with audiences?
STITT: Well, for me, I’ve had all of this music sitting in archive for over a decade. Every time the show hit a wall I began to mourn the score (the arrangements! the orchestrations!) that no one had ever heard. So I’m most excited that the music is going to come to life. I think we’ve got some fantastic singers, and John and I have worked hard to make sure that their songs guide you dramaturgically between eras. And John’s work on the book and lyrics has been enormous. He’s not kidding when he tells you he had these two strong, loud, PERSISTENT women (his director and his composer) challenging every moment he wrote. I feel like what we’ve got now is both more expansive and more economical than what we presented all those years ago at NAMT. The show really does keep getting better and better.
JILER: We’re hopeful we can make the audience—and ourselves—understand the dynamic, sweeping changes in mid-twentieth century America. As the music evolved from klezmer through swing to rock and roll, society travelled from the euphoria of the World War II victory to the uncertainty—and soon the turbulence—of the 50s and 60s.
What have been some of the joys and challenges of developing the piece since it was featured in the Festival eight years ago?
JILER: Well, we feel we’ve been in a lot of developmental situations since then, and learned from each one of them. The reactions of wildly idealistic college kids has been just as important as the reactions of hardened pros…we carry all of them with us as we march into existence in Philadelphia.
STITT: The joys for sure include the number of places we’ve gotten to work on this show along the way, and I’ll list them here because these institutions have really been crucial not just in developing the show, but in developing the two of us as we pushed the show to the finish line. Thank you to the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, OCUStripped at Oklahoma City University, the University of Nebraska, the York Theater, the Commercial Theatre Institute (CTI), New Musicals at 54 Below, and especially NAMT and 11th Hour. John and I noted this week that when we started writing this show, his kids were in elementary school and mine weren’t even born. Now his kids are both in college and my eldest is almost in high school. So the challenge is that it took forever, and that we’re different writers than we were when we started. But maybe that’s just how it was supposed to go.
Why should everyone make their way to Philadelphia to see the production?
STITT: We can promise you good music and a captivating story. We can promise you interesting characters played by wonderful actors. We can introduce you to a fantastic female director and a scrappy and ambitious theater company that is commissioning and delivering new musicals season after season, just about an hour outside of New York City. And after we finish up at 11th Hour we’re going to need another theater to fall in love with us. So… at long last… we can promise you a great show!
JILER: A remarkably committed theatre company and a sextet of amazing performers are going to take the audience on a journey through the core of American popular music, and trace the development of the American soul at a very formative time in our history. It’s a story we’re really passionate about telling.