Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: ‘Spitfire Grill’ – 13 years and counting


PHOTO: The exuberant song “Shoot the Moon” from the Fred Alley-James Valcq musical “The Spitfire Grill” is sung in Korean in a 2007 production in Seoul, South Korea. Production photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Months ago, I was chatting with James Valcq in Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay about “The Spitfire Grill” and mentioned that Sheboygan Theatre Company had scheduled the musical on its 2013-2014 season. He was unaware of the production. That surprised me. James Valcq composed the music for “The Spitfire Grill,” which is set in Wisconsin. He said he didn’t keep track of the show as closely as he used to and at the time figured the count was past 400 productions.

A few weeks ago, in preparing for the interview for this piece, James Valcq checked his information and found the total of productions has reached 475. “That’s a lot,” he says. Indeed. The show has been performed across the country and abroad, from amateur/high school ranks up through regional/pro theaters. Supported by a major award, “The Spitfire Grill” played in New York City. The show has been translated into three languages.

According to an Internet site, here’s the title in Japanese: が広がり、スピットファイア(ミュージカル)グリル.

In 2001, the Door County community gave a warm-up version of “The Spitfire Grill” an enthusiastic sendoff before the production went off to New York City. Little could anyone present suspect that the show would emerge as something special all over the map.

James Valcq also had no inkling.

“No. No. Never,” he says, “You hope, of course. You hope that everything you do will be very successful, but you try to keep a sense of perspective and an eye on what’s probable in addition to the dream of what’s possible. But for this, it sort of turned into the dream.”

Points of fascination abound with “The Spitfire Grill.” Let’s start with the Sheboygan Theatre Company production that continues through Saturday, March 8. Judging by images on the Internet of widespread productions, The Sheboygan set appears to stand apart. I describe the setup in my review at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/story/d/story/critic-at-large/41013/xZeAW_WZvE6-1jZCMSCXpQ. James Valcq is unable to attend the Sheboygan production because he’s busy starring in the musical “Souvenir” at Stage Door Theatre Company in Sturgeon Bay in Third Avenue Playhouse, of which he is co-artistic director. Simultaneously, “Anatole,” another show for which James Valcq composed the music, has opened a run through March 16 at First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee.

James Valcq has attended a few productions of “The Spitfire Grill.” For a time, he chose not to.

“I stayed away for a while just because it was very difficult for me to face it. It brought up beautiful memories and really painful memories, too. For a long time, the painful ones kind of overrode the beautiful ones. I couldn’t really bring myself to go even though I was invited.”

A beautiful memory

Fred Alley. James Valcq collaborated on “The Spitfire Grill” with Fred Alley, co-founder of American Folklore Theatre, which puts on original musicals in Door County in summer and fall. Fred Alley had a golden tenor voice. He co-wrote quality AFT shows. Fred Alley and James Valcq had teamed in the past. Then in 1996, the film “The Spitfire Grill” came out. It was written and directed by David Lee Zlotoff.

James Valcq says, “I saw a Screen Actors Guild screening of the movie (as part of an awards process). Stephen Schwartz of ‘Godspell’ and ‘Pippin’ (and ‘Wicked’) fame was at this same screening. I thought, ‘Oh, great. He’s going to have the same idea I have. He’s Stephen Schwartz – He’s going to get the rights. But I better go for it anyway.’ So I did get in touch with the author, and, “Yes,’ he said, ‘I am interested.’ So I sent it to Fred, who was a little wary at first. But I can be very persuasive myself, and I talked him into it.”

James Valcq isn’t sure what the clincher was for Fred Alley to join in the project.

“I think really the opportunity for him and me to work together again. We really wanted to. I think he caught my passion for the piece and what it was about.”

A bit of moonlighting, the project was outside the American Folklore Theatre fold.

“Yes, definitely, but no so far afield. It comes out of the same armoire, just a different drawer.”

By chance, I had a one-to-one conversation with Fred Alley as “The Spitfire Grill” was in the works. He liked what was happening but at the same time said American Folklore Theatre was No. 1 with him.

Clearly, James Valcq and Fred Alley were on the same page when writing “The Spitfire Grill.” A first production in New Jersey earned raves. Then the show won the Richard Rodgers Award, which included $100,000 for production in New York City. A ceremony would include a presentation by Stephen Sondheim, the illustrious Broadway composer. Fred Alley told me he was looking forward to that.

Painful memories

Fred Alley died while jogging in Door County at age 38 as the result of a massive heart attack. “The Spitfire Grill” started New York City in early September 2001. Then came 9/11. The saga of “The Spitfire Grill” comes with a lot of baggage. Mixed baggage.

The critical reception “was quite mixed,” James Valcq says. “The most important review was the New York Times, and that one I would characterize as lukewarm. Others – the Wall Street Journal and the other daily papers – were raves of the sort we got when the show first opened in New Jersey. And New York magazine – John Simon named us the best musical of the year, 2001. I wouldn’t say they were lukewarm; I would say there were some reviews that were kind of callously dismissive. That’s the term we coined at the time to describe what they were really like because even those didn’t say, ‘This stinks,’ but they made it quite clear that it was not their particular cup of tea and just kind of dismissed it.”

The impact of 9/11 was “huge,” James Valcq says.

“There were only two previews that happened before then, and at those two there were Broadway producers coming in... But along with (people associated with the show) telling me who was there, they were also telling me who had made reservations and was yet to come. After 9/11, none of those people came anymore. But it was a very turbulent time for so many reasons. A tiny little blip in the horror of it all was the effect it had on New York businesses, and an even tinier blip is the impact it had on the business that is New York theater. And, you know, they didn’t really know how the theater was even going to continue. Most of the long-running shows in New York run on tourist trade, and there were no tourists. You could roll a bowling ball through Times Square and not hit anybody. It was very dead. Shows that were big, long-running hits took a real nose dive. And something new by unknown authors, which we were… a lot of us kind of lost that opportunity. To say, ‘The show didn’t run on Broadway because of 9/11,’ would be small and very callous of me. And that’s not my implication, but that terrible event definitely had an impact on all of us working in New York theater at that time.”

The success

Despite everything, playmakers picked up on “The Spitfire Grill” and produced it. I like James Valcq’s answer to why he thinks the show caught on.

“It’s good. That’s the short answer. Speaking as a producer now, we would love to do a musical here (at Stage Door Theatre Company). I don’t care for revues at all, and there are a lot of really small revues we could probably afford to do, but there are very, very few small-scale book musicals. And that is one of the practical reasons that theaters schedule it. Also, if it was not something audiences responded to, theaters would not keep scheduling it. It would go away because nobody would be having success with it. But the fact is pretty much everybody has a huge success with it, and I really believe that Fred tapped into the universality of these characters, that there’s something that everybody can relate to somewhere in the show and a lot of people can relate to all of the characters. They see bits and pieces of themselves in all of them. I think that goes a long way towards longevity in a production. It’s only 13 years, so it’s a little early to speak of longevity, but I did a count in preparation for my conversation with you and we just hit 475 productions that I’ve been able to keep track of, and that’s a lot. That’s a lot. It’s been all over the world, everywhere except Africa and South America. But every other continent.”
The thought of a musical being translated into German, Korean and Japanese is fascinating.

James Valcq says, “The Korean production in particular was really beautiful, really, really beautiful. I have a DVD of it. The cast is absolutely top notch. The A-list musical theater stars in Korea were in it… and they were just fabulous. Man, could they sing. And the German production intrigued me. It was a very bare bones production, sort of a store-front theater group that did it, and they did the translation themselves. I’m still corresponding friends with the people who were in it and who did it. In fact, I when I had to run by one of the lyrics for ‘Victory Farm’ (a show he co-wrote for American Folklore Theatre), I ran it by the guy who did the translation of ‘Spitfire Grill’… I can understand German, and I can certainly understand their translation of ‘Spitfire,’ which is beautiful. German is such a formal language, and Fred’s speech is so informal, and I don’t know how they captured it, but they did. They really did. It’s just beautiful. Anyway, I had to run by them my little attempt at writing a German folk song just to make sure that it was at least grammatically correct… The Korean reviews were so wonderful. They said it’s so Korean, that the essence of the show is so Korean. And, you know, we think the essence of the show is so American. So I guess that hits again of the universality of the characters and the things they say and sing – that even in a culture that’s so different from ours that they can find themselves in these characters.”

For the Sheboygan Theatre Company production, director Robert Marra articulates the thought in his program notes: “What makes this show so special, in my opinion, is its ability to teach, touch and inspire. There are universal themes and life events that these characters are dealing with that we can all relate to. It portrays real people dealing with real life, and reminds us that no matter how hard our paths have been, there is always hope. Never let go of hope. And most importantly, that we as individuals have the power and ability to inspire others as well as ourselves to change.”

It took a few years for James Valcq to be up to seeing performances of “The Spitfire Grill” with which he was not associated. Then came an inquiry from Terre Haute, Indiana.

“The theater invited me to see a production there and wanted me to talk to the audience with a little talkback, and they offered to put me up at a Victorian B&B, which I had never done and always wanted to do. They just called at the right time and I said, ‘Yes.’ That was the first time I saw a production that I hadn’t been involved in. I didn’t know the people who invited me, and I didn’t know anybody in the show. I was just sitting in a room full of strangers and enveloped by my music and Fred’s words. It was really kind of indescribable. I absolutely loved it.”

For a period, many productions of ‘The Spitfire Grill’ were mounted.

“From week to week, I knew everywhere that it was being put on. I would love it when they would kind of pile up. There would be six or seven different theaters doing it at one time and (I’d be) just thinking of it being done in all those different places and different time zones. ‘OK, it’s 8 o’clock – So and So is singing this song to So and So in all these different productions.’ What a thing to even contemplate.”

James Valcq admits he peeks at clips of productions that are posted on YouTube.

“What I do love about all of them is just the idea that all these people who Fred and I never met are speaking our words and music, which is just a great thought. I like watching. There are some that are actually high school productions. When Fred and I went to high school, we were in ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Carousel’ and such. The idea that high school kids now are doing something that we wrote is really a kick.”

In addition, some songs from the show have lives of their own.

“‘Forest for the Trees’ has become very popular and has made a list of Do Not Sing This at Auditions because it’s overdone. I love being on that list. Apparently, every young Tom, Dick and Harry is singing that song…

“And ‘Shine’ was sung on a reality TV show. They didn’t sing the whole song. It was on for 30 seconds, and let me tell you, I’d like to be in about 18 more reality shows and I’d never have to work another day in my life. That TV money is ridiculously lucrative. It’s ridiculous.”

James Valcq says he owns the rights to “The Spitfire Grill” along with the estate of Fred Alley.

James Valcq says the show took on a life of its own a few years after it arrived.

“It didn’t need me or Fred helping it along or guiding it. It was its own thing, and we are out there in the world. It’s very humbling. Very exciting. Very, very exciting and not something I take lightly. I think it’s quite amazing, and it doesn’t happen for a lot of people. That’s a rarity. Or it happens on a really small scale where something gets done a couple of times. This is more than we expected of our little baby, our brainchild, and more than we dreamed of.”

Among other activities, James Valcq has another show in the works, “Box Car,” in collaboration with Laurie Flanigan, who co-wrote “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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