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A CurtainUp Review
The Civil War

Production Notes
Song List


The nominating committee of the Drama Desk has this year created two music categories -- Outstanding New Musicals and Outstanding Musical Revue. Since our country's most divisive wars seems far too serious a subject to be identified with the song and dance image evoked by the term revue, The Civil War made it into the first category. Critics, unlike the legion of wild-about-Frank fans, will most likely feel the third Wildhorn musical to have arrived on Broadway doesn't warrant a place in either category.

Actually, it seems to fall into a new genre that may, if it succeeds, lead to yet another classification for the awards nominations that sprout this time of year like the first blooms on the forsythias. In the words of the book's collaborator, Gregory Boyd (the artistic director of the distinguished Alley Theater in Houston which launched one of this season's outstanding theatrical coups, a production of Tennessee Williams' never produced Not About Nightingales), The Civil War represents an "experiment" that departs from conventional narrative. Instead of plot this new formula borrows "techniques from rock, from concert performance, from oratorios and song-cycles."

If you can keep yourself from pouncing on the word formula as in formulaic music and characters who are representative types rather than individuals, you might just find quite a bit to like in this series of animated postcards with music. The distinguished director Jerry Zaks has arranged the postcards into a handsome album, with an assist from that wizard of projections, Wendall K. Harrington, to enhance the documentary flavor. The music may depart little from the mixmaster sounds that are Wildhorn's trademark but it does have the benefit of some superb voices, most especially Cheryl Freeman and Michael Bell who deserve every show stopping ovation they get.

While the slaves tend to get the show's best scenes and songs, the cast as a whole is praiseworthy. At times even good are bested by the incongruous blend of peppy rhythms with earnest lyrics -- for example, Keith Byron Kirk as Frederick Douglas philosophizing about racism to catchy rock beat. The soldiers on both sides are neatly balanced into numerous striking tableaus. The battle scenes are excitingly staged but after one too many lose their impact and fail to convincingly bring home the immensity of the losses incurred during this terrible brother-against-brother war.

Some of the best and most original moments are provided by Leo Burmester as Autolycus Fell. Until Wildhorn and his collaborators add him to the show's every mounting body count, Fell and his hookers ( (Hope Harris and Beth Leavel) add some much needed comic relief to the grim saga of death and destruction.

Will you learn anything new about the Civil War? Not unless you've been living in a glass bubble and don't know that the North was against slavery and the South for it and that slavery, though terrible, did exist.

Are their any heroes to root for and villains to hate? Again no, because this is a musical peopled by representative types from the era rather than characters you're likely to remember. No Sir Percy to rescue victims of the French Revolution from the guillotine. No Dr. Jekyll to battle his evil alter ego Mr. Hyde. Just one continuous singing album of animated images.

Like the cast, the entire creative team is topnotch. Douglas W. Schmidt's scenic design includes a dramatic metaphor for this war of families in deadly conflict -- a replica of the spectacular Victory frieze with the figure of Athena, the goddess of defensive war and guardian of Athens at its center. Costumes and lighting by two master craftsmen William Ivy Long and Paul Gallo, add to the visual authenticity of this panorama. One wishes that one day Mr. Wildhorn could tap into genuine emotions instead of the feel good ersatz in which he specializes.



The Civil War [BOX SET] Various Artists
The Civil War: The Nashville Sessions(1998 Studio Cast) -- one disk

Production Notes

THE CIVIL WAR Book & lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy & Gregory Boyd
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Featuring Michel Bell, Cheryl Freeman, Irene Molloy, Michael Lanning, Gene Miller with Matt Bogart, Leo Burmester, Gilles Chiasson, Lawrence Clayton, Dave Clemmons, Mike Eldred, David Michael Felty, Kristine Fraelich, Anthony Galde, Hope Harris, Capathia Jenkins, Keith Byron Kirk, Beth Leavel, David M. Lutken, Monique Midgette, Wayne Pretlow, Jim Price, Royal Reed, Chris Roberts, Raun Ruffin, John Sawyer, Ron Sharpe, Bart Shatto, Rod Weber and Cassandra White
Musical staging by Luis Perez
Set Design: Douglas W. Schmidt
Projections: Wendall K. Harrison
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: Paul Gallo
Sound Design: Karl Richardson
Fight direction: by David Leong
Orchestrations: Kim Scharnberg
St. James Theatre 246 W. 44th St. (212/ 239-6200)
Previews: 3/23/99-4/ 21/99; opening date 4/22/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on 4/18/99 performance


Song List

ACT ONE

A HOUSE DIVIDED...............The Citizens
FREEDOMíS CHILD........Frederick Douglass and other Abolitionists
BY THE SWORD/SONS OF DIXIE.................The Armies
TELL MY FATHER.................Private Sam Taylor
THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION...............The Enslaved
IF PRAYINí WERE HORSES........Clayton Toler and Bessie Toler
GREENBACK.........Autolycus Fell, Mabel, Violet
MISSING YOU (MY BILL)....................Sarah McEwen
JUDGMENT DAY.......Capts. Pierce & Lochran, Private Sam Taylor and the Armies
FATHER, HOW LONG?......................Clayton Toler
SOMEDAY..........Harriet Jackson, Bessie Toler and Others
IíLL NEVER PASS THIS WAY AGAIN..............Corporal Stewart
HOW MANY DEVILS?...................The Armies

ACT TWO

VIRGINIA........................Captain Pierce
CANDLE IN THE WINDOW................ Harriet Jackson
OH! BE JOYFUL!.......Autolycus Fell and Sgt. Anderson, Pvts. Bock, Hotchkiss
YOU PICKED THE WRONG DAY, MISTER......Mrs. Bixby, Nurse, Union Soldiers, Clayton Toler

RIVER JORDAN................Benjamin Reynolds and Others
SARAH................Corporal William McEwen
THE HONOR OF YOUR NAME..................Sarah McEwen
GREENBACK reprise..............Autolycus Fell, Violet
NORTHBOUND TRAIN.....................Captain Lochran
LAST WALTZ FOR DIXIE...........Capt. Pierce and Confederate Soldiers
FREEDOMíS CHILD reprise...........Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Reynolds and other Abolitionists
THE GLORY............Capts. Lochran & Pierce and Full Company




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© Elyse Sommer, April 1999