New Work in Progress: Distant Thunder

Next, we chatted with Michael Baron, the Producing Artistic Director at NAMT member Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. The company is about to open the world premiere of Distant Thunder by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Chris Wiseman. Lyric Theatre has received a grant for this production from the Frank Young Fund for New Musicals.

Darrell Waters, a successful young attorney, returns to his childhood home in Montana to broker a deal that can benefit the impoverished Blackfeet Nation. He soon faces his reclusive father about their painful past and grapples with the paradigm of what it means to be Native American in the United States. Cultures collide and unite through music, dance, stories and faith as we witness the dawning of a Distant Thunder.

What is Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s history with new works, and how does this new production of Distant Thunder fit into your overall commitment to new works development?
Lyric began our New Works Initiative in 2014 with a production of Triangle (NAMT Fest ’12) by Tom Mizer and Curtis Moore. Our audiences still talk about that show and the excitement of having a new work given a full production here in Oklahoma. I felt it was important that Lyric not only produce new productions of musicals from the canon but that we contribute to it as well. The value of having composers in residence working on their material and having a full production outside of the critical eye of New York has been thrilling to the artists and our audiences alike. Subsequent new musical premiere highlights have included Adam Gwon and Julia Jordan’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair (NAMT Fest ’11), Doug Cohen and Dan Elish’s Mann…and Wife (now titled The Evolution of Mann), and Alana Jacoby and Scotty Arnold’s When We’re Gone (fka Mortality Play, NAMT Fest ’16). Since Oklahoma is home to 39 nations, Lyric is a perfect theatre to premiere Distant Thunder. Lyric will be able to nurture and develop the production in an arena of artistic safety and in a geographic area that embraces multiple tribes.

How did Distant Thunder first find its way to Lyric Theatre, and why did you decide to produce the world premiere now?
Kent Nicholson from Playwrights Horizons reached out to us and thought this show might find a home at Lyric due to our recent history of producing new musicals and strong ties to the Native American nations here in Oklahoma. Lynne Taylor-Corbett and her son Shaun then came out to Oklahoma to talk about the musical, its developmental history and their own personal story with ties to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. I instantly loved that the musical celebrates modern Native American life and gives voice to Native youth. It also gives new opportunities for Native American musical theatre artists to finally perform as Native Americans in a story that respects and celebrates their identity. In the Heights, the Broadway musical created by Lin Manuel-Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes (which Shaun was a cast member of) has had a similar impact on the Latino community and I could see this show having the same effect here in Oklahoma and across the nation.

Can you tell us about who’s in the room for Distant Thunder and how the rehearsal process is helping to shape the show? 
This musical has brought together artists from across the country with those in Oklahoma. The company includes 16 actors, six musicians and a creative team from New York, California, Oregon, Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma. Over 10 tribal nations are represented, including two Oklahoma boys who compete in native “fancy dancing” at pow wows across the country. The rehearsals started with a week of the creative team looking at the script and score one more time before the actors arrived. The focus was to make sure the story was clear and there was a plan for integrating native instruments and vocal influences into the more traditional musical theatre score played and sung by members of the cast.  The first rehearsal meet and greet was a celebration featuring Tribal leaders from around the state, with drumming, singing and lots of food, setting the stage for the inspiring theatrical event that will soon be shared with audiences. 

What makes this show a great fit for your audiences, and what are you most excited to share with them when they come to the theatre?
Since the moment Lyric made a commitment to produce the show, new conversations have been happening among and with our sponsors, patrons and the staff of Lyric. Oklahoma’s Tribal Nations are a huge part of the political and cultural fabric of the state, but their stories have not been told at Lyric, the state’s largest professional theatre, until now. At Lyric Theatre, it has become top priority to cultivate, nurture and maintain relationships with the vibrant and diverse communities of Oklahoma. Inclusion is now a pillar of Lyric’s mission where every Oklahoman can expect to see their lives and life experiences reflected on Lyric’s stages. This production comes at a time when Lyric’s mission, Oklahoma theatre audiences and the state as a whole are coming together to begin to tell stories that encourage and foster honest conversations about the true history of America and Oklahoma. 

The musical is tuneful, funny, moving, political and inspiring all at once. I would say it is in the musical traditions of Fiddler on the Roof and In the Heights in that by telling a specific cultural story it becomes universal in performance. Just as audiences have come to know and love the people of Anatevka and Washington Heights, they will embrace the fictional characters inspired by the real people of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. The score draws from Native American, honky tonk and modern pop rock musical theatre. The finale is a full pow wow celebration right in the theatre. I’m very proud and honored that the writers, artists and most importantly Tribal Nations of Oklahoma are coming together at Lyric to premiere this special and important new musical. 

Why should folks buy their tickets to see Distant Thunder now?
Of course we have thousands of Oklahomans excited to see the show, but we would love for folks from around the country to share in Distant Thunder as well. Tickets are still available and we do have house seats available for any NAMT members who want to come check it out. Oklahoma isn’t as far or as hard to get to as people think. We even have non-stop flights from both coasts! The show runs March 25-April 19 and we’re happy to give folks recommendations on where to stay and where to get the best bbq and chicken fried steak. 

For more information about Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and Distant Thunder, please visit their website.

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