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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The happy/sad yellow brick road of a musical ‘from here,’ Part 2

Critic At Large

‘The Spitfire Grill’ of Fred Alley and James Valcq

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Theaters in Arizona, New York, Texas, Florida, Washington and Idaho are all about to present a show that connects to right here in Northeastern Wisconsin.

More than 700 theaters around the globe connect to the 20-year-old musical, “The Spitfire Grill.” The story is phenomenal, and it continues to keep on giving.

Composer James Valcq provides fabulous and moving insights on the musical that started in New York City just days before 9/11.

Details are in a video series recorded for the website of Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue Playhouse. Access to the videos is at, “TAP Talks Series,” episodes 26, 27 and 29.

This account started Saturday and included the find of the film “The Spitfire Grill” written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff.   

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, James Valcq and Third Avenue Playhouse co-artistic director Robert Boles had time to explore what essentially is a yellow brick road.

Three episodes tell of how the show was created in Door County and New York City and during a run of the super popular show “Guys on Ice.”

James Valcq collaborated with the gifted Fred Alley and created “The Spitfire Grill” in a speedy fourteen months.

They won the Richard Rodgers Award and earned accolades from such high-power artists as Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim.

As the show was in its final preparations, Fred Alley died of a heart attack while jogging in Door County.

In the video, James Valcq touches the heart as he describes working next to greatness.

What they created resonates today. Some planned productions of “The Spitfire Grill” have been scratched because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but others are on their way. A list:

+ Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria, Arizona: Aug. 13-Sept. 5.

+ The REV Theatre Co., Auburn, New York: Mentioned but no dates given.

+ Artisan Center Theater, Hurst, Texas: June 4-July 3.

+ Village Theatre KIDSTAGE, Issaquah and Everett, Washington: summer 2021.

+ New Horizons Country Day School, Palm Harbor, Florida: summer 2021.

+ Starlight Mountain Theater, Garden Valley, Idaho: Aug. 23-Sept. 4.

That’s essentially coast to coast, with the “north coast” represented recently with a production at Antigo High School in northern Wisconsin, home state of James Valcq and Fred Alley.

A little over 20 years ago in spring 2001, the two were working toward important dates for the production by Playwrights Horizon off-Broadway.

James Valcq was in New York City for his Broadway work. Fred Alley was in Wisconsin for his work with American Folklore Theatre (now Northern Sky Theater), which he co-founded.

In the video, James Valcq recalls Fred Alley visiting he and Robert Boles in an apartment they had recently moved into.

“In between that, I would go out to Wisconsin and stay with him on Triangle Road (in Door County). And I went out at least two, maybe three, times.

“We were finishing up a draft for a workshop at Playwrights Horizons. They were doing a summer workshop before they did the actual production, which would open their 2001-2002 season opening in September of 2001. The workshop was to be in late May. This was late April. It was Fred’s last trip out for writing purposes. The next time he came out was going to be for the actual workshop at Playwrights.

“We were in a brand-new apartment. He taped the script all over the wall. This was how Fred worked. He had to see it in front of him and, you know, see it physically, not just flipping through pages. And I made him use removable tape because I didn’t want to be like chipping the paint off the walls.

“The last thing we did was read and sing through the show. We read the parts, and Fred would sing it in his beautiful voice and I’d come in with my croak voice when it was a duet or group thing.

“We just went through the whole show and ‘Yeah, this is pretty much where we want to be.’ And, uh… (pause) packed Fred up and called a cab…

“And we went down. You were there, too, Bob, in front of our apartment there, and tucked Fred into the car that we had called with his stuff and sent him up the hill going to the airport, and that was the last time we ever saw him.”

James Valcq spoke with Fred Alley two days later by telephone.

“In that conversation, he said the most wonderful things to me about our work together and how much the collaboration and friendship meant to him. And I remember at the time being sort of overwhelmed at what he was expressing to me. It was just so moving, and I’ll never forget it.

“Well, on May 1, I got a phone call from Fred’s brother, Dave, and I was at the gym swimming. The message just sounded very grave, and he said, ‘James, you need to call me right away.’ And Dave was not available when I called. Kaye Christman (business manager of American Folklore Theatre) actually answered the phone and told me that Fred had passed, that he had a heart attack while he was out jogging. It was less than a mile from his home. He was on Highland Road and… and can’t even describe the devastation.

“I haven’t talked about this in a long time, and I don’t know, I hope I don’t seem cold. I’m not. But it was awful and unbelievable and really couldn’t sort of fathom it.”

James Valcq and Robert Boles stayed in New York a few days.

James Valcq says, “I remember sitting there and saying, ‘Why are we here? Let’s go to Wisconsin. Let’s go to be with people who know us and who knew Fred, and it’ll better than being here by ourselves and we can’t do anything anyway.’

“We went to Wisconsin and, indeed, found ourselves among scores of Fred’s closest and dearest friends, of which there were many. I think everybody who knew Fred more than passingly felt he was somebody very important in their lives. That’s just the way he was.

“And among other things that were happening, grieving, crying, carrying on, we were gathered at the house on Triangle Road where we had done all the work on the show. And there was business to take care of, too, because the Alleys and I had already decided that the workshop and the production, if possible, would go on. Everybody had that as a goal. The Alleys didn’t want the show not to happen because we were all devastated. They wanted it to go on.

“I knew that we had a draft ready, but I knew that we weren’t completely done. The point of the workshop at Playwrights was to do rewrites. So what Dave and I did was to find all of the ‘Spitfire’ files on Fred’s computers and get those on whatever format we used at the time to download to get those to me.

“I remember saying that we were satisfied with our draft, except for one thing. There was this song for Hannah and we weren’t satisfied with it in spite of working on it a lot. And I remember on the way home from Fred’s funeral that I was driving and Bob, you were holding a computer that we had that we could use in the car – again in the primitive days of 2001 – and you said, ‘Oh, here’s a file called Hannah’s song.’ I said, ‘Oh, open that up.’ And there were B1, B2 and B3. So Bob, you read me B1, and it was clear, ‘Oh, I had already tried setting that. You know, not that one. Well, what’s the most recent one?’ ‘It’s B3.’ And you started reading that, and it’s like, ‘Uhhh, that’s what we have now, and we’re not happy with it.’ And then you said, ‘Let me read B2.’ Lo and behold, this was something he hadn’t shared with me. It was all through the same spots, so it included elements and themes from what were in the other two, but it was a quite different take on the lyric, and it was exactly what the doctor ordered. So in a way we were still collaborating even though he wasn’t there. It was a new collaboration, a song that was completed from something I found in that computer file.”

Robert Boles: “That’s pretty amazing, and I remember that. So even despite this devastating event, you went on with the workshop, casting and just focused a lot on that. And that really helped in a lot of ways, I think, just to be able to focus on yours and Fred’s work and see it to fruition.”

James Valcq: “It helped, but it also was a means of deflection as we discovered not too long after. It was within a couple of years that it became clear that there was severe depression that I wasn’t dealing with. And the reason I wasn’t dealing with it – it was all good reasons – the Richard Rodgers Award, the workshop, the rewrites after the workshop, the production of show, the publication of the script and the music, the recording of the cast album insuring the legacy of the show. All of those things were very important, and it was all good work. But what it did was effectively delay true grieving, and you’ve got to grieve.”

Robert Boles: “Yeah.”

James Valcq: “And it’s never over. You’re never done with it, but you need to engage with it at some point, and I really can’t um…, but let’s back up a little. I have another visual, the Richard Rodgers Award which was won during the production of the show.”

In the rest of the video and the subsequent final one, James Valcq does not pick up on the topic of his depression.

As for the visual, its of James Valcq holding a photo of Fred Alley as he accepts the award from Stephen Sondheim. By coincidence, the ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Letters took place right across the street from the James Valcq/Robert Boles apartment. In attendance was a Who’s Who that included writer Garrison Keillor, artist Chuck Close, author Philip Roth, composer Ned Rorem, poet Reynolds Price and lyricist Sheldon Harnick.

Robert Boles: “It was just one of the most thrilling events I’ve ever been to in my life, and I wasn’t even being honored. But watching you up there accepting the award from Sondheim with all of those people there… That was a really incredible evening and bittersweet that Fred was not there. But it was so delightful that John, his brother, could be up there and we could spend some time with him… Just to be there and me being a little bit more than a fly on the wall through all of this, it was just thrill.”

From the time Fred Alley and James Valcq got the rights to winning the Richard Rodgers Award, 14 months elapsed.

Robert Boles: “Ladies and gentlemen, this doesn’t happen normally at all. Some musicals and plays are in development for a decade or more before they reach this level. This is unprecedented, and it was a lot of being in the right place at the right time thing. A lot of luck was involved and everything else. I’d like to think that talented people always get what they deserve all of the time. That isn’t true. But in this case, everything fell into place like you wish and hope you would.”

James Valcq speaks of the loss of Fred Alley and goes on: “We knew at the time that we were spectacularly fortunate to have all these events fall into place. We didn’t, of course, know at the time that had it been any other way, we never would have finished the show. All of our intense work pretty much was goaded and intensified and accelerated by having these deadlines and having these productions tossed into our unknown, untested laps.”

To end, I’ll go to a second element in the musical where it was changed from the film. Instead of being set in Maine, the musical is set in Wisconsin.

James Valcq: “It was Fred’s idea, of course. Everything he had written prior to that had been set in Wisconsin – all of his theater pieces. And there were actually a couple reasons.

“We thought there already was a Maine kind of folk musical, ‘Carousel.’ Those characters express themselves in folkish ways and in kind of a Maine dialect, and we write dialects a little more authentically in the theater now than they did in the 1940s when ‘Carousel’ came out.

“Trying to get that Downeast Maine accent to rhyme and sound good – I’m not even going to try to imitate it because I can’t – and very few people can do it. So we wanted the show to be performable, and we thought we could write more authentically if we did write it in a Wisconsin tone. I thought it worked out really well…

“Before Fred and I even finished this, we were already thinking about the next thing. I was suggesting this novel by a Mexican author set in old Mexico that had a lot of themes that I thought we could really go to town with. And Fred read it and liked it.

“In a couple of weeks, he said, ‘Does it have to be set in Mexico?’

“And I said, ‘Fred, does everything we write have to be set in Wisconsin?’”

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

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