New Work in Progress: Because of Winn Dixie

Next, we spoke to Donna Lynn Hilton, Producer, and Anika Chapin, Artistic Associate, at Goodspeed Musicals, about their upcoming production of Because of Winn Dixie by Duncan Sheik (Fest ’15, Noir) and Nell Benjamin (Fest ’03, Sarah, Plain & Tall), based on the original book by Kate DiCamillo. NAMT members attending the New Works Roundtable this summer will have to chance to see the production.

In a Southern town filled with lost souls, a new leash on life is just around the corner when a preacher and his daughter take in a mutt named Winn Dixie. The beloved, award-winning novel about a quirky community learning to get along now sings for the first time in this uplifting new musical.

Goodspeed has a long and robust history of developing and producing new musicals! How does this production of Because of Winn Dixie fit into Goodspeed’s overall mission?
From the moment we first heard of the work, Because of Winn Dixie has felt like the perfect fit for us. We produce classics as well as new work—over our history we have produced over 70 world premieres—and this is a new musical that feels destined to become a classic. Not only is a musical theater dream team (John Rando, Nell Benjamin and Duncan Sheik) putting it together, it’s also a fantastic story. The book on which the musical is based has become as popular as it is because it hits the heart so beautifully; a girl who feels she doesn’t have a home and a stray dog find one another and end up bringing together an entire community, and the music really enriches the story. And, while it’s not part of our mission, it didn’t hurt that BOWD gave us the opportunity to celebrate our longstanding relationship with animal trainer extraordinaire Bill Berloni. Bill began his career working on the original production of Annie at the Goodspeed in 1976. This is the first time an animal Bill trains gets to play a true leading role onstage, and we’re excited to be able to work with him on this groundbreaking piece.  

How did the show first find its way to Goodspeed, and what makes it a great fit for the Opera House stage?
We’ve been tracking the project for eight years—since Bill and Dorothy Berloni shared the idea with Donna Lynn shortly after optioning the book.  Goodspeed hosted the first workshop of the piece way back in 2012 and have been following the show’s progress closely. When the team approached us about being the next step for director John Rando to fine-tune the work he’d begun with the writers on the Alabama Shakespeare Theatre production, we jumped at the chance. We felt it was destiny that Because of Winn Dixie finally make its way to the Goodspeed stage—after all, we have a pretty strong track record with shows about smart, feisty young girls and the big shaggy dogs they love!  

Because of Winn Dixie has had a couple of productions over the last few years—what kind of developmental work has the Goodspeed team been doing with the authors to prepare for this new production?
Because of Winn Dixie was first produced at Arkansas Rep in 2014 and had subsequent productions at the Delaware Theatre Company and at Alabama Shakespeare Theatre. John Rando joined the project for the Alabama production. Since John came onboard, he’s been working closely with the writers to fine-tune the piece. They did a lot of great work in Alabama so the primary focus of Goodspeed is to give them the opportunity to build on that work. As with so many musicals in development, you simply run out of time and that was the case in Alabama. So we’ve pretty much stayed out of their way in terms of script and score. They’d done a great deal of work since we said “Yes” and, in fact, a new song arrived on the same day as our first run through! Goodspeed’s production department has been working closely with John and the design team to envision a space that allows continued flexibility with the script. We are introducing projections as a major production element and there are some surprises hidden in the set—designed to support Bowdie’s behaviors and strengthen the storytelling. Our focus has been primarily on the physical aspects of the storytelling.

What are you most excited to share with your audiences when the show opens later this month?
There’s so much, it’s hard to know where to begin! Duncan Sheik’s score is fantastic, the story is wonderful, and this cast (two-legged and four-legged) is extraordinary. And although a young girl is at the center of the story, this is a show that resonates with all ages—the problems that Opal and the people in the town face are very real adult problems that can’t be magically overcome. There’s a true emotional resonance to the story. But I guess what we’re most excited to share with audiences is the story at the heart of the show—that of Opal and her dog Winn Dixie. Josie Todd, our Opal, has really bonded with Bowdie, who is a canine acting machine, and watching their love story unfold onstage is very special. Animals don’t usually play such a big part in a live story. Experiencing their bond makes you think about all the animals you’ve loved, who have helped you through your life when you really needed a friend. It’s something that we’ve never quite seen captured onstage before.

NAMT members will have a chance to see this show by attending the New Works Roundtable that Goodspeed is hosting in August—why should all NAMT members and alumni make sure they see the show as part of the Roundtable?    
Well first of all, we think this show is going to have a long and robust life after our production, and it’s always fun to say you ‘saw it when.’ Second of all, Bill Berloni’s work with the dogs is redefining what’s possible on a theater stage, and that kind of expansion of the form is what NAMT and its members always have their eyes on. And third of all, because you’ll have a great time and experience our legendary “Goodspeed hospitality.” We hope you’ll join us.    

For more information about Because of Winn Dixie and to buy tickets, visit the Goodspeed’s website. To register for the New Works Roundtable and secure your ticket through that event, visit the NAMT website.

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