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Asolo Rep's 'Twelve Angry Men' adaptation sings a song of freedom

Producing Artistic Director Peter Rothstein directs the inventive production in its Sarasota premiere.

"Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical" runs at Asolo Repertory Theatre through June 9.
"Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical" runs at Asolo Repertory Theatre through June 9.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
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Democracy depends on dialogue and debate. That’s not confined to political campaigns. It also applies to crime and punishment. Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” (1954) explored the volatile jury process as an episode of “Studio One” on CBS. Rose then adapted his original teleplay as a stage play in 1955 and a movie in 1957. 

But that’s not the final verdict. His jury will be in session, from May 11 to June 9 on the Asolo Rep stage — but there’s a side note. Their deliberations haves been reimagined as “Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical” — a new adaptation by David Simpatico (playwright) and Michael Holland (composer and lyricist). 

The Asolo Rep’s producing artistic director, Peter Rothstein, directed the 2022 premiere at Theatre Latté Da in Minneapolis, and was part of the development process for five years before that. He’s now directing the Asolo Rep’s performance. In the following conversation, Rothstein shares why the angry jury’s findings are still relevant. And why this inventive new adaptation sings the song of democracy loud and clear.

Let’s start with your source material. What makes Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” such a classic American drama?

There are several reasons. Its dramatic structure is one. Rose originally wrote it for television — and the “action” takes place in one room.

It’s a “bottle story.”

Yes, exactly. That’s a radical departure from the typical dramatic structure of live theater revolving around trials. There are scores of courtroom dramas, but “Twelve Angry Men” explores the claustrophobic jury process. That’s something you rarely see — and that’s what people want to see! It’s also a fascinating character study. The piece is incredibly hopeful and idealistic. The playwright wanted America to deliver on its promise. Rose used the judicial system as a microcosm for our democracy. His drama takes you to a place where people are judged by their peers and the citizens of the nation exercise justice. Those are big ideals. For these and many other reasons, it’s an American classic.

Why turn this classic into a musical?

Why not? It’s unlikely subject matter — and I’m drawn to that. Some of the greatest musicals of all time deal with unlikely subjects.

How’d you get involved with this unlikely project?

With one innocent question. I’d been collaborating with lyricist and composer Michael Holland on a couple of new musicals and it just came up in conversation. I asked, “Is there anything else you're working on?”  Michael said that he’d done the first draft of a musical adaptation of "Twelve Angry Men" with a book by David Simpatico, but the original producer had lost interest in it. Once I read it, I thought the draft had terrific potential. So, we put it in our development pipeline at Theater Latté Da; after five years of work, it premiered there. The story is still incredibly relevant, even though it’s 70 years old.

Asolo Repertory Theatre Producing Artistic Director Peter Rothstein is directing "Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical."
Image courtesy of Michael Devaney
What makes it so relevant?

The societal issues it confronts. “Twelve Angry Men" delves into racism, ageism, xenophobia, prejudice, and toxic masculinity. America wrestled with those problems in 1954 – and they haven’t gone away. They’re still with us in 2024.

OK. So, the relevance is baked into Rose’s original teleplay. It’s not something you added.

Yes and no. We did make a few changes to the original. Right at the beginning, I said this musical had to have a multi-racial cast. And I had zero interest in directing yet another drama where the hero is a white person. We all agreed on that. Our goal was cast diversity — but how diverse? In the early stages, we left that casting choice up to each individual director. But I encouraged my collaborators to spell it out. So, the script became very specific about the characters’ ethnic and cultural identities. If we’re addressing racism, xenophobia and ageism in our society, our writer and lyricist needed to lean into that. And they did.

And the result was not a color-blind musical?

No. I’d say it’s very color conscious. One character is Korean-American; one is a a Mexican immigrant; one is Jewish; one is biracial. And Juror No. 8 — the Henry Fonda role — is also an African-American.

How’d you find the right mix?

Our development process weirdly echoed the experience of the twelve jurors! During our workshops, we got constant input from our multiracial cast — and the back-and-forth was quite similar to the jury deliberations. It was a rare experience! How often do you have a room of people of different races in one room together, talking about racism and toxic masculinity? The cast’s contributions, especially from men of color, added nuanced perspectives on race and representation. So, after five years of hard work, we felt like the script was ready. We originally slated it for a full production to premiere in May of 2020. But it was the weekend that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. 

Wow. In a horrific way, the musical’s story became even more relevant.

Yes, it did. Simultaneously, George Floyd’s tragic story hit very close to home. Minneapolis became the epicenter of the protests following his murder — and Theatre Latté Da was swept up in that. In a very short time, the conversation around racism and toxic masculinity completed shifted in this country. We went back to the drawing board and addressed the core societal issues more directly. We finally premiered in June 8, 2022.

Asolo Rep's production of "Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical" runs through June 9 at FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
Let’s talk about the shape of this musical. Musical theater and un-musical theater are very different animals. How did the creators make the original story work as a musical adaptation?

By serving the needs of the story — and reflecting the time it takes place. Michael wanted a sophisticated mid-century jazz sound. If you listen, the 1950s is definitely a big influence on his score. There are elements of Bebop and the music of Nina Simone. But, as I said, every song must serve the story. And what is the story? “Twelve Angry Men” is not a plot-driven narrative. It’s full of arguments, not action. Men change their minds — that’s the only action in the play. How do you translate that to musical form? In musical theater tradition, the characters sing when words alone fall short. So what justifies our songs? Ultimately, we decided each song leads to a character changing their mind. That was the driving force behind our musical moments — but we kept the character turns subtle. We didn’t want to telegraph where the story was going. A predictable structure is the last thing you want in a musical.

You obviously directed the musical’s premiere. Are some of the original actors and creative talents returning for the Asolo Rep production?

Yes. Eight actors are returning, but not simply repeating what they’ve done. It’s a character study, and that always informed by each actor’s personality. We have a new music director, but it’s mostly the same core creative team. I’m still refining the script. Just a few tweaks — not a radical reimagining.

Will this show inspire our readers not to avoid jury duty? 

I would hope so. Juror No. 11 said it best. He’s the immigrant character, and he’s escaped from a dictatorship. He thinks jury duty is a great privilege. Twelve ordinary citizens deciding on another citizen’s guilt or innocence? “We have a responsibility,” he says. “ This is a remarkable thing about democracy. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong.”



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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