Arts Desk

Fire, a Dog, and a Musical About the First Musical

While highbrow playgoers may like to say they see musical theater because of complex plots and intricate music, producers know there's nothing that brings in an audience like dog gags and pyrotechnics. That's what drew audiences to America's first musical–The Black Crook, which played to audiences in New York City in 1866. (Of course, the inclusion of several hundred French ballerinas dancing in skin-colored tights didn't hurt, either.) And while And the Curtian Rises–Signature Theatre's upcoming musical about the The Black Crook's production–has original music and a remarkably intricate 16-person cast, it doesn't leave out the dog. His name's Jackson.

Signature doesn't skimp on the pyrotechnics either–though Michael Slade, who wrote the show's book, admits Curtain doesn't go quite as far as its inspiration, which lit up the whole stage.  "Signature was just great about saying, 'Sure: We'll have fire, we'll get a dog,'" Slade says. "We haven't had to fight for anything, even if there are budget cuts... they just keep saying 'we'll figure it out.'" 

The show revolves around the story of those involved in The Black Crook's creation, primarily William Wheatley, the show's producer and director. A New York Times obituary praised Wheatley upon his death in 1876 as "one of the most widely-known theatrical managers in the United States."

The creators say history buffs will find a lot to like in Curtain. "It's a fascinating moment in time," says Slade. "It's just after the Civil War and the population was ripe for a new type of popular entertainment."

That's not to say they were slaves to history. "We've taken a lot of liberties," says Slade. He thinks these liberties broaden the show's appeal. "It's dealing with issues in fun and entertaining ways that someone can relate to in some way," he says. "People... sometimes have a prejudice toward the past of assuming that people in the 1800s didn't have the same passions and emotions that we do today."

The music's modern too. "I'm not writing music that will sound like 1860, 1870," says composer Joseph Thalken. However, he's hoping the musical themes will help a contemporary audience connect with these past figures. "That was our goal here," he says. "To make these people real flesh and blood... it's a piece that's both entertaining and moving."

It's lyricist Mark Campbell, however, who has the simplest praise. "It's just fun," he says. "I wish I could say something more profound than that, but right now I'm just watching it and I'm saying 'God–this is so much fun!"

Fair enough. After all, it does have a dog named Jackson.

And the Curtain Rises runs March 17 to April 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. $54-$80. (703) 820-9771.

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