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'Knoxville' team preps for world premiere after pandemic pause

They could've moved onto other projects and other endeavors. But the creative team behind "Knoxville" believed in their work and used the pandemic to strengthen it ahead of its world premiere.

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  • | 5:20 a.m. March 26, 2022
Knoxville cast members Paul Alexander Nolan, Jack Casey and Jason Danieley in the rehearsal room. (Courtesy photo: Ian Johnston)
Knoxville cast members Paul Alexander Nolan, Jack Casey and Jason Danieley in the rehearsal room. (Courtesy photo: Ian Johnston)
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They charted every path and made every creative decision, pushing their production farther along the road to its opening curtain.

And then they had to take a step back.

The award-winning creative team behind “Knoxville,” which will make its world premiere on the Asolo Repertory Theatre stage on April 15, used a two-year break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to make wholesale revisions to their play’s structure and song cycle.

The original musical is based on the James Agee novel “A Death in the Family.” And Frank Galati, director of "Knoxville," said that the creative team never could’ve imagined the disruption COVID-19 caused but that the musical is also much better because of it.

“The whole world was ambushed and terrified and in many ways wounded by the pandemic,” says Galati. “Even when we were told we would have to postpone, none of us could’ve predicted this enormous break and unbelievable trauma. In the passage of time, as artists, we hold inside of ourselves the work that we do. And it kind of falls asleep. But it stays there. ... In our sleep, we’re singing. We’re looking at staging. We’re imagining interactions. We’re having conversations with the novel and wrestling with James Agee. It was wonderful to be liberated for a time to put it away, let it sleep and let it have its way with us as time passes.”

Galati, who won a Tony Award for his adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1990, is working with kindred spirits.

Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens had also worked with Galati on “Ragtime,” and they’ve collaborated separately on a number of productions. Ahrens and Flaherty made “Anastasia” and “Seussical” together, and while they’ve been in Sarasota, both shows have had local performances.

Ahrens says that it isn’t rare; she’s seen productions of “Seussical" advertised even while on tour in Australia. At any rate, Galati, Ahrens and Flaherty all said that the long gestational cycle of "Knoxville" isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, Galati said that he believed “Ragtime” toured around regional theater houses for four years before it ever got the chance to open up on Broadway.

In that case, the creative team had the chance to see what worked and didn’t work on stage before they made any revisions.

But this time, they were kind of flying blind.

“When you have a hiatus, you’re clear-eyed,” says Ahrens. “When you’re in the midst of it and you’re headed to the stage, you only have rehearsal time for this much time. You’re working overnight putting a change into the next page. The clock is ticking, and it’s very tense. It really requires cool heads and a lot of focus. If you do have a chance to step back for a weekend — or two years in this case — you see things you could never have seen under that pressure or in those time constraints. In that sense, it’s a good thing.”

Flaherty, for his part, says that "Knoxville" was fully orchestrated and ready to go even though he had never heard it played live. And then that version died an untimely death due to the pandemic. The extra time allowed him to reimagine moments in the score and to rewrite them, and it gave the creative team time to draw up new characters and songs for them to sing.

“We just taught a new song this morning,” he said recently. “It’s for a new character who wasn’t in the earlier draft; it’s a new idea and came through the interaction of the three of us. It was great to finally be teaching this particular actor this song and to hear it sung in the room for the first time. You’re tailoring it for this particular actor; it’s a very exciting morning.”

But that bit of creative license has repercussions. When the creative team writes new dialogue and new songs for new characters, it means they have to spike some of the material that they had previously loved. Otherwise, the play would wind up being nine hours long.

How do they make those decisions? How do they kill songs they think might be hits in the proper context?

Time and experience, says Ahrens, have made them ruthless.

“As we sit in this room, we are surrounded by invisible piles of dead songs,” says Ahrens. “They’re all around us. They’re floating through the air. Every opening night, Stephen gives me a notebook, kind of a loose-leaf binder kind of thing, and it’s every cut song, every cut moment, every cut bit of underscore, every cut transitional piece of music. It’s all in the book, along with his drawings and pictures that say, ‘This never made it out of your living room.’”

“And if you read the book, it’s not like a sad read either,” adds Flaherty. “You can see how this idea led to this idea and how this conversation about this moment led to this moment. It’s really about the thought process rather than orphaned songs. Although I think orphaned songs want to live together, it helps my soul knowing that they’re close together in the book.”

Galati smiles a warm smile at this juncture and says, “That’s show biz.” He says that one of his favorite theater critics, Walter Kerr, offered advice that pertains to this kind of situation, saying that a playwright should seek to kill every third laugh in their script.

Sometimes, says Flaherty, time and distance wind up dictating the editing process by themselves. Flaherty says he believes "Ragtime" is even more relevant today than it was when it opened, and part of that is because they had so many great chefs in the kitchen.

“Frank brought so many smart people into the room who are credited with doing one aspect of the production but were in fact multitalented,” he says. “Lynn is a book writer as well as a lyricist. Our costume designer is also a set designer. Our choreographer is also a director. Frank is a playwright as well as a director. Everybody had so many skills. To get that kind of energy in the room, it was like an incubator for ideas. The gestation period, even though it seemed long, it made the piece richer because we had the time again.”

Flaherty likens the creative process to raising a child. You do the best you can, you pour as much love as you can into the life, and then you set it free into the world. Ahrens, not one to miss a beat or an opportunity, chimes in before he can even finish the sentence.

“And you call after it, ‘Send Mommy and Daddy home a check now and then,’” she says.

The trio has no idea what will happen to “Knoxville” after its Asolo Rep theatrical run. Will it go to another regional theater? Will it be taken Off Broadway or straight to Broadway? They haven’t even begun to think about it; they’re too busy wrestling it into shape.

“Our days are crowded and busy, but this is why we live. It’s like being in the sunshine and you’re a plant,” says Galati of the final revision process. “It’s very charged. Very thrilling and exciting. You sort of pinch yourself because there’s so much coming at you from other souls. And they’re all telling the truth. Sometimes it can be exhausting and draining emotionally.”




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