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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The happy/sad yellow brick road of a musical ‘from here,’ Part 1

Critic At Large

‘The Spitfire Grill’ of Fred Alley and James Valcq

James Valcq, left, and Robert Boles during a video describing the making of the musical “The Spitfire Grill” that James Valcq wrote with Fred Alley. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – 9/11.

That Tuesday morning in New York City was beautiful and sunny.

A four-hour rehearsal of “The Spitfire Grill” was scheduled in the afternoon. The musical by Fred Alley and James Valcq of Wisconsin started preview performances the previous Friday.

To start his Tuesday, “I went to the gym and swam,” says composer James Valcq. Afterward, “I was going to go back home and get things ready to go to rehearsal. I came out of the gym, and something very strange was happening. People were standing around outside and looking like death. Well, it was Sept. 11, 2001, and the Twin Towers had just been hit.

“I got on the train – it was actually running – and it was packed, and many of the people on the train were coming from downtown. One of the guys on the train was there at the World Trade Center and kept talking about it.”

Once home, “I said, ‘Bob, turn on the television. There’s been a terrorist attack or something. Something’s going on.’ So we were glued to the TV.”

Soon, the producer of “The Spitfire Grill” phoned.

No rehearsal.

And no performance that night.

Later came word that every Broadway production – and the whole of New York’s theater world – would be shut.

“It was three days,” James Valcq says. “Bush (President George W.) came on TV and said, ‘We can’t let this break us. We need to take our lives back. We need to go shopping, and we need to go to concerts and to the theater again.’ As one, all of the Broadway producers decided this is when we’ll reopen. Probably that Friday we all came back.”

The musical that Fred Alley and James Valcq adapted from the film “The Spitfire Grill” is about a young woman, fresh from prison, who rejuvenates her life and the life of a small Wisconsin town. Its songs blossomed like fields of wildflowers.

The authors’ beautiful work had already inspired a major award, the Richard Rodgers Production Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

When performances of “The Spitfire Grill” resumed in Duke Theatre on 42nd Street, “People treated it like a gift that we were giving to them, like it was the most precious expression of why we cared and why we needed to get our lives back,” James Valcq says.

“I recall that for the first couple performances we decided that Liz Calloway (one of the stars) would lead the audience in ‘America the Beautiful’ at the end because it still seemed somehow irreverent for us to be performing at this time when all those men and women were down at the World Trade Center trying to claw at the rubble and we’re here doing this show.

“We also had talkbacks afterward, and that’s when it became very clear how much coming to this particular performance meant to these people. It was maybe three days into this that somebody at the talkback said you really don’t need to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ at the end, the whole show is that. Which was a really wonderful thing to hear.”

At another talkback, a person wondered about the appropriateness of the song line, “It’s hard to count the days when you’re buried alive.” James Valcq changed it to “It’s hard to count the days when you’re barely alive” for the duration of the New York run.

“There was a talkback where somebody asked about the influences on the musical style of the show, and I didn’t quite know what to say. I said, ‘Well, I’d listened to a little bit of bluegrass music for like two days, and growing up I had some John Denver and Billy Joel and Joan Baez/Judy Collins kind of stuff in my head. But that wasn’t my music that I primarily listened to but was in there somewhere. I was more classical and music theater. So people were going back and forth about what it is, and finally some man said, “Whatever you want to call the style of the music is immaterial. What matters is that it’s as timeless and profound as a Bach cantata.’ It was beautiful. Who gets to hear something like that, hear their music described that way?”

These descriptions are a mere slice of what James Valcq tells about “The Spitfire Grill” in a remarkable series of videos that came to be thanks to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The opportunity wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.

If the backstory were a book, it would be a page turner.

As a video, it is filled with humanity – the stuff surrounding creativity and success and life and death.

Today, James Valcq is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. He directs, composes, designs and performs there, too.

 “The Spitfire Grill” videos are part of an outpouring created by James Valcq and co-artistic director Robert Boles – the Bob mentioned above. Access to the videos is at thirdavenueplayhouse.com, “TAP Talks Series,” episodes 26, 27 and 29.

Stepping back, the basics: A composer of a successful, lasting musical talks in detail about a vista of happenings surrounding the show. Participating is his life partner, who was “more than a fly on the wall” in the entire process.

Rare.

James Valcq and Robert Boles are talking about “The Spitfire Grill” because of phenomenal stories, because of more than 700 productions here (all 50 states) and abroad and because of staying power due to continuing productions.

The videos are down to earth.

In the first, James Valcq reads from an essay he wrote “400 productions ago” to accompany publicity material:

“My collaborator, Fred Alley, and a wrote the entire show riding the surge of passion that comes when a project is fresh and possibilities are limitless. We set out to create a piece of populist theater, a folk tale, and followed not the cerebral impulse but an emotional one. We listened to the characters let them tell our hearts what to write.”

Robert Boles adds, “It’s a great example of how the show speaks to different cultures as well.”

The musical has been produced in Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan.

James Valcq says reviews said “it spoke to something in the Korean heart and then the Japanese heart.”

The authors are from Wisconsin.

James Valcq was essentially a child star who grew up in Milwaukee. Fred Alley was from Mount Horeb and was a gifted youth, too. They knew each other through a high school music camp in 1980.

Their first collaboration was “The Passage,” written for the music-and-theater company Fred Alley co-founded that today is Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek in Door County. Research was done on Ellis Island during a stunning confluence of creative forces that I have written about.

“We found that we loved working together as collaborators and really felt we kind of brought out the best in each other – creative soulmates,” James Valcq says.

Their idols were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose shows are mostly adaptations.

Onward James Valcq goes in the recordings, mercilessly edited here:

“Fred wasn’t coming forward with any original ideas for us, and I was actively seeking something that we could do an adaptation of, which was sort of an anathema to Fred. He really wanted to do something completely original, but I thought that he would find an adaptation freeing if we already had a basic structure of characters and what was going to happen that we could concentrate on expressing ourselves and not on specifics of construction. There’s still a lot of construction involved… but you’re not starting from zero.”

James Valcq read a review of the film “The Spitfire Grill’ in New Yorker magazine and thought the material might work for the two.

But the film wasn’t in New York for very long, and he couldn’t see it.

BUT, Robert Boles is a member of Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and, as a nominator in the awards process, had seen a private screening of “The Spitfire Grill.”

Robert Boles says on a video, “I remember coming home and telling you – I didn’t know that you had read the review – so independently of you reading the review, I saw the film and I knew you were looking for material for a musical, and I thought, ‘This might be it.’ At least it would be worth looking at to see if it would be it.”

The two attended another screening.

“I was entranced and sort of transported by this film, which I thought was beautifully done,” James Valcq says. “It was very cinematic, and it couldn’t, and shouldn’t have been, just be translated to the stage as is – just put the movie on stage. That wasn’t an option, and that’s not how you do it. But I found the characters and everything about it so rich and so inspiring. So I immediately told Fred about it. He says, ‘Where can I see this film?’ He was in Door County.”

James Valcq was performing in “Chicago” on Broadway at that time, as was Joel Grey.

“Academy Award-winning Joel Grey of ‘Cabaret’ fame, mind you,” James Valcq says.

Joel Grey was on same SAG board as Robert Boles and was on the Academy Award nominating committee, having been an Academy Award winner.
“He doesn’t just get invited to screenings, he gets videotapes,” says James Valcq. “So I sent Fred Joel Grey’s videocassette of ‘The Spitfire Grill’.”

Fred Alley watched it and was also “enchanted and entranced and transported by this film, and he still kind of didn’t want to do it. But it was two against one, and Bob and I sort of bullied him into at least seriously pursuing the idea of having this be our next vehicle.”

James Valcq and Fred Alley wrote “The Passage” in 1994, and this was fall of 1997. “It seemed like forever. It seemed like we needed to get going on something,” James Valcq says.

Fred Alley did come around, and next was the process of getting the rights from Lee David Zlotoff, who wrote and directed the film “The Spitfire Grill.”

James Valcq says he was intimidated by Lee David Zlotoff’s credits, which included the TV hit series “MacGyver” and “Remington Steele.” His was the off-Broadway “Zombies from the Beyond.”

Flash to opening night of the musical a bit more than a year later: Robert Boles says he went up to Lee David Zlotoff to thank him. “He started to pooh-pooh it, and I said, ‘No, no, no. If you hadn’t called, none of this would have happened.’ And he said to me something on the order of ‘You know, I was dismissed by a lot of people in my profession in California for the kinds of things that I did, and people never returned my calls, and I vowed if I got any kind of clout in the business that I would at least return the call once and I wouldn’t ignore any calls. I would at least do it once and acknowledge that somebody wanted to speak to me about projects, whether or not they worked out or not.’ And that’s pretty unusual in show business. And the fact that he did that is the reason the show has had over 700 productions. It would not have happened without him.”

There still was a lot of lawyerly red tape.

Robert Boles: “I remember the rights were held over T-shirt revenue. There are no T-shirts, by the way, never were planned to have one.”

Meantime, plans for collaborating arose. That is a story, too.

James Valcq: “Fred and Jeff Herbst (Northern Sky Theater artistic director) invited me to be in their production of ‘Guys on Ice’ (a super-popular musical in Wisconsin and still having a presence). This was the third time they were doing the show. And the character Ernie the Moocher doesn’t have very much to do.”

The real purpose was to have James Valcq and Fred Alley together because the rights for “The Spitfire Grill” were coming through anytime. They wanted to be together and hit the ground running “when that happy day arrived,” James Valcq says.

“Well, it did arrive one chilly, brisk October night. There was a ring around the moon outside of the Ephraim Town Hall (performance spot for ‘Guys on Ice’), and we received a message that it was happening – the rights were coming through. We did a little happy dance out there on the street, on the highway, and then went in and did our show. And we continued doing our show in Green Bay, and then we went down to the Milwaukee Rep doing ‘Guys on Ice’ and writing madly the whole time.”

In Milwaukee, “We had two rooms at the Plaza Hotel (downtown). I was actually staying with my family, who live in Milwaukee, and I was going to turn down the room from the Rep. Fred said, ‘No, let’s keep it. It can be our office.’ And that’s exactly what it was. Fred stayed in a room at the Rep. We could go into my room at the Plaza and write a lot of the show there.”

Flashing forward, past the first draft to a demo recording with a half-dozen songs. One copy was given to Tom Ford, a friend.

James Valcq: “Here starts the story. Tom gave it to his friend, Penny Fuller. Sidebar: She’s a Tony Award-winning actress. She played Eve Harrington in ‘Applause,’ the musical opposite Lauren Bacall.”

Penny Fuller is a friend of David Saint, artistic director of George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, of which James Valcq sings, “Forty-five minutes from Broadway” from the George M. Cohan musical. The playhouse is famous for nurturing new works.

The theater is looking for a show for a world premiere, and James Valcq meets David Saint.

Flash forward: There’s a workshop.

Robert Boles: “You originally were pretty much following the storyline as presented in the movie. You made a very significant change.”

James Valcq: “We tried to utilize what was done in the film, and the leading character dies. Oops. Spoiler alert! Yah, there’s a death of a leading character. The resolution of the story with that happening – it just wasn’t working on stage.

“Now Arthur Laurents – who wrote the books on ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Gypsy’ and was a mentor to David Saint and good friend of David Saint – also became a mentor to Fred and me. He was really intrigued by the project and kind of taken with Fred and me and was very much involved with how we would do this.

“And he knew about adaptations. ‘Gypsy’ was an adaptation of Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography that he went completely off on and did his own thing with, and ‘West Side Story’ is an adaptation out there of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ So he encouraged us to follow our own path with what happens to the characters.

“I remember him saying, to paraphrase it, that sometimes having a character die is the easy way out. Sometimes it’s harder for them to have to – them, themselves – to have to face the consequences of what they’ve done throughout the play rather than have all the other characters deal with the outcome. I didn’t say that as inspirationally as he did, but Fred and I were like, yes, okay. And then a new way to do the ending of the show came clear.”

Soon in the recording, James Valcq goes over to a piano to explore a song – entering the world of collaboration.

“I’ve been quoted as saying there’s no music in me without words, and that’s really pretty true. I usually don’t write anything without a lyric, and the lyric always come first. But even before the rights, I just kind of wondered – and Fred asked me – what is the sound of this show going to be? What is it going to sound like? And this is the very first thing I came up with, these eight chords…. (he plays)… This is where I started… slow… Like taking steps in a slow pattern… Didn’t know where it would go…

“Something about those intervals – it just came to me. And I hung on to it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with it.

“So then Fred had gotten me a lyric for a song called ‘Lone Wild Bird,’ which was to be sung to the character of Shelby, and it was a power ballad, a big power ballad, and it went something like this… (He plays and sings) very loud and there was a lot of belting in it… But another power ballad was going to follow… too much. So we jettisoned that lyric, but Fred came up with something else that scanned similarly and also had ‘wild bird’ in the title but was to be done with a more gentle approach… (going into what came up at first with for the new ‘Wild Bird.’) That still isn’t it. It’s not the right feel…

“Fred said, ‘You know what, James, this song is a love song and a lullaby. I like that tune, too, but can’t you make it sound more like a lullaby?’

“Well, that’s a 6/8 rhythm… ‘Silent Night’ is a classic 6/8 lullaby rhythm, so I adapted it to that, still with a lot of those chords in it.

“And Fred always said, ‘That sounds too written. There’s too many notes. Simplify it. Purify it. Take some of that other stuff out.’

“And guess what, him telling me to do that made me think perhaps I should try and play those first eight chords I told you about.”

On the video, James Valcq goes on to artfully explore the inner soul of the song, sometimes breaking up amid his distillation of creativity graced by the aura of Fred Alley.

Sunday: Dramatic highs and lows on the yellow brick road.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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