Big Red Sun, the post World War Two-era musical Georgia Stitt and I are developing at the 11th Hour Theatre Company of Philadelphia, began life at the Stephen Schwartz ASCAP workshop ten years ago. We came away with the coveted Harold Arlen Award, but with some cautionary advice…….”Only one musical in twenty,” said Stephen, “is original——-which is to say, not taken from or based on a play, movies, book, poem or thought of somebody else’s.”
Why, we asked? (As we sat there with an original musical!)
“Because, he replied, it’s so damn hard to begin with!! You’re afloat on such a treacherous sea that at least if you’re going from Buoy A to Buoy B to Buoy C, plot-wise, you have something! Otherwise you sit around saying to each other, “What if it takes place on Mars?” “What if everyone is a gay cowboy?” You could drive each other crazy. And we have.
I think what’s sustained us to this point is a belief in each other (Georgia is an amazing composer) and a true, undying passion for our subject. World War Two had ended, the troops flooded home and did a lot of dancing in the streets, but at a certain point looked around and said….”what happened to Jerome Kern? What happened to Swing? What happened to creamy melodies?” The world had changed in their absence.
Gone was Glenn Miller in a powder blue tuxedo, and it wouldn’t be too much longer (fifteen years) before Jimi Hendrix would be playing the electric guitar with his teeth. How we got from one to the other with such lightning speed is the crux of our story.
My own father fought in that war, and as he squatted in a malarial foxhole in the Pacific, he probably thought, ‘at least my children will always be grateful.’ And we were. To a point. It just seemed to us that it wasn’t too long before the dark clouds began to roll in; not just McCarthyism (aIthough that certainly qualifies as a dark cloud) but even the Levittowns they flocked to on their G. I. bills—all of it seemed like a hollow pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And the musical journey of all this, from Klezmer through Swing to the early days of Be-Bop and the first raw sounds of Rock and Roll, is a journey through the musical soul of 20th century America. Ambitious? To be sure. But that’s where 11th Hour comes in.
I’ve written only one other musical, Avenue X many years ago. It began at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and is about racial wars in Brooklyn between Blacks and Italians in the 1960s. And all the music is a cappella. Right, no instruments—the idea being that the sweet harmonizing street corner Rock and Roll of that era (which ran, in case of blacks ran all the way back to gospel and slave chants and in the case of the Italians, to Puccini) was done by the naked human voice under a lamppost.
A theatre company needs guts to take that on, and 11th Hour had and has no fear; not of holding an audience for two hours with the naked human voice (they did an amazing production of Avenue X) nor, in the case of Big Red Sun of time travelling between 1940 and 1960 at the drop of a hat, and embracing a score that cuts through every conceivable genre of the American songbook.
This is a piece of theatre a long time in the gestation, and we are deeply thrilled to be giving birth to it in Philadelphia.
by John Jiler and Georgia Stitt
directed by Megan Nicole O’Brien
February 27-29, 2016
At 11th Hour Theatre Company
Playing at the Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 North American Street, in Philadelphia PA 19106
Take a journey with aspiring writer Harry Daimler as he tries to uncover the truth about his family’s past. Our developmental reading tackles this new musical with a score that weaves through klezmer to 1940’s swing to 1960’s jazz and pop.
Big Red Sun is the story of a son’s search for his father through post-World War Two America. Harry Daimler is a restless, imaginative teenager stuck in a soulless New York suburb. Throughout his young life he’s accepted his mother’s explanation of his father’s absence: Eddie Daimler, a well-known pre-World War Two swing musician, was killed in action with the American Army in France. But Harry, no longer satisfied by his mother’s simple explanations, is looking for more information. By grilling sources as diverse as the local rabbi and a black jazz trumpeter who once played in his father’s band, a portrait emerges of the real Eddie Daimler. For the first time, Harry is beginning to know his father, and every time he learns something new, the play reveals the information in flashback. Harry (in the present) and Eddie (in the past) are telling their stories simultaneously.
Harry learns that his father was the first modern in his lower East Side Jewish neighborhood. While everyone else on Ludlow Street attended shul religiously, Eddie jazzed around town. He bought an American suit. He edited the guttural sounds out of his own speech. And even though he made his living playing music for local bar mitzvahs and weddings, he had his eyes on more distant bandstands. Harry learns that his father clawed and scratched his way into a big band and married the lead singer. He convinced the bandleader to hire a black trumpet player, thereby sealing in the heat of the band. But as the band assailed the heights of the 1940s music scene, news filtered to America revealing exactly what Hitler was doing in Europe. Eddie’s Jewish blood boiled up and he joined the army, leaving behind Helen, his scared and pregnant wife.
As Harry watches his father’s life play out before him, he learns that Eddie’s experience was not the glorious, heroic one typical of the “greatest generation.” Rather, the war left Eddie with psychological scars from the battlefields of France and the brothels of Paris… just as, back in New York, his wife was giving birth to their only son. As the curtain falls on Act One, Harry learns a shocking truth, and Act Two swirls us relentlessly into the violent Rock and Roll of the 1960s.
John JIler won both the Richard Rodgers Award and the Kleban Librettists’ Award for his first musical Avenue X, which played in New York at Playwrights’ Horizons and in some fifty cities around the world. His plays have been seen at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference, The Kennedy Center, Seattle Rep and many places in between. His latest book, Sleeping With The Mayor, was named a New York Times’ “Notable Book Of The Year.”
*The videos above are from the Feinstein 54 Below performance.