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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The storied James Valcq of Door County theater and beyond, Part 1

Critic At Large

Multifaceted co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse, Sturgeon Bay

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – James Valcq = theater.

“It started with an unsuccessful audition for my sister Susan’s high school production of ‘The King and I.’ I was five years old.

“We all had to go in and sing ‘Getting to Know You,’ and I was literally tone deaf. I couldn’t go up or down at the right time with the melody. I had no sense of pitch – tone deaf completely. Although, I loved music. By that time, I had already seen ‘The Sound of Music’ and was vaguely aware of who Rodgers and Hammerstein were and that this was another one of their shows. But they just couldn’t cast me in it because I couldn’t carry a tune.

“This was Holy Angels Academy in Milwaukee. The nun who was the voice teacher and the music teacher and the choral conductor there, Sister Frances Dolan, took my mother aside and said, ‘Mrs. Valcq, James really can’t be in this because he can’t sing. But I can see that he really wants to do it. I would like to teach him music. I would like to give him piano lessons to wake up his ear.’

“And that’s exactly how it started. My mom said yes, so I learned how to play piano, how to sing and how to hear, most importantly.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say I owe it all to her. I never let her forget that for the rest of her very long and very active life. She passed just a couple of years ago, but she kept track of my career, and we kept in touch through mail or visits with each other over the years.

“The biggest thrills with Sister Frances were when she got to see me do (as a professional boy soprano) ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors,’ a first highlight, and when she got to see (as co-creator) ‘The Spitfire Grill’ in a production in Chicago. It had been in New York, but it was in the Midwest for some reason. My mom and dad drove to Chicago and picked Sister Frances up at Sister’s home and took her to this play. She couldn’t have been prouder.

Also, I was with the national tour of ‘Chicago,’ the musical. When it played Chicago, I was associate conductor and conducted several performances. Again, my parents came down and brought Sister Frances to a performance I conducted. How wonderful, for somebody who saw not even talent but a desire in me at age five to come and see you conduct a Broadway musical on tour. It’s mind boggling.

“I think everybody has a teacher – or two, if you’re lucky – somewhere along the way who is an enormous influence on your life. And Sister Frances is that person for me.

“And she was no ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’/Mother Abbess nun. This was right after Vatican II. She didn’t wear a habit. She wore very chic outfits.

“Before she was a nun, she had an act like in the musical ‘Chicago’ – (singing) ‘My sister and I had an act that couldn’t flop.’ She had an act in Chicago, The Dolan Sisters, and the word was that they played speakeasies. I didn’t ever ask her about that in too much detail, but I think maybe they played in upper-class gentlemen’s clubs where, you know, they’d take requests and they’d do their numbers. It wasn’t a low-down kind of a dive, but, you know, I think it wasn’t like what might have been in the phone book, either. But I think it was maybe an upper-class kind of a joint. (Laughs). She alluded to it in some terms, and then legend at the school and a little bit of research – she did, indeed, have this act. She really did come from a showbiz kind of a background.”

What a story. James Valcq is full of them. And talk about Six Degrees of Separation, James Valcq is a single degree away from many, many theater people of regional and national note. And he knows it.

“I do want to drop another name, Arthur Laurents. Arthur is the reason that I referred to Sheldon as a colleague.”

Filling in and previewing: Arthur Laurents is co-creator of “West Side Story.” Sheldon is Sheldon Harnick, co-creator of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Stephen Sondheim is writer of numerous Broadway musicals. James Valcq is co-creator of “The Spitfire Grill,” a musical that has had more than 700 productions.

“It was Arthur who said after a performance of ‘The Spitfire Grill’ in New York, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve won the accolades and respect of your colleagues like Sheldon Harnick and Stephen Sondheim?’ And I said, ‘Arthur, that’s really biblical to think of those people as my colleagues.’ And he said, ‘Get over it. They are,’ in his irascible way. Wow.”

Filling in and previewing more names: Fred Alley was co-creator of “The Spitfire Grill,” the musical based on the movie of the same name. David Saint is artistic director of George Street Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where “The Spitfire Grill” started.

“Arthur was a great friend of David Saint. David told him about ‘The Spitfire Grill’ and took particular interest in the project and took particular interest in Fred and me and really mentored us through the right process and really encouraged us to benefit from what we loved about the movie but not to be so in love with it that we felt a need to re-create it but to create a new, inspired by the film. And I think mostly that’s what guided us, and that’s how we wrote it.

“I am very much a starry-eyed 57-year-old kid from Milwaukee who is amazed that I’ve ever even seen these people in person let alone worked with them, and they know my work like I’ve grown up knowing theirs. It boggles my mind and is a source of enormous, humble pleasure.”

James Valcq is not a 25-words-or-less person. Along with Robert Boles, he is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse professional theater, but that’s part of this career iceberg:

***

James Valcq holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an applied voice major and a master of fine arts degree from the Musical Theatre Writing Program of New York University (NYU).

He started his professional career as a boy soprano singing in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” with Skylight Comic Opera and Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with Milwaukee Opera Company. For Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, he sang George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” under conductor Arthur Weisberg and under Kenneth Schermerhorn for Pro Musica.

Young James Valcq played roles in summer stock, appearing with John Raitt, Karen Morrow, Margaret Whiting and Dave Madden.

Composing began while still in college. He eventually left performing to concentrate on composing and conducting. In addition to musicals, James Valcq has composed song cycles and choral pieces which have been performed in the United States and Europe.

On Off-Broadway, James Valcq wrote the book, music and lyrics and co-directed the production for “Zombies from the Beyond,” which opened in 1995.

James Valcq co-produced the 2001 Off-Broadway production of “The Spitfire Grill,” for which he composed the score and collaborated on the book with lyricist Fred Alley. The musical won the Richard Rodgers Production Award presented by the America Academy of Arts and Letters. “The Spitfire Grill” received Best Musical nominations from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League and two Drama Desk nominations. The cast album was released on Triangle Road Records.

Broadway credits as conductor and/or musician include “Chicago,” “Flower Drum Song,” “Cabaret” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Other New York credits include “Fallout Follies” at York Theatre, “Songs I Never Sang for My Father” at Village Theatre and “The Last Leaf,” a collaboration with Mary Bracken Phillips.

Other conducting credits include Maurice Sendak’s production of “Really Rosie;” “Candide,” “Lady in the Dark” and “South Pacific” at Skylight Opera Theatre and “She Loves Me” at Indiana Rep.

James Valcq has composed scores for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival; Great Lakes Theatre Festival; Door Shakespeare; “The Pancake King” for Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre; “The Passage,” “Victory Farm” and “Boxcar” for Northern Sky Theater; and “Anatole” for First Stage. For Third Avenue Playhouse, of which he is co-artistic director, James Valcq created the Irving Berlin cavalcade “I Love a Piano;” reconceived the opera “La Serva Padrona” as “Maid to Marry;” created a new adaptation of the 1910 musical “Madame Sherry;” wrote and performed the monodrama “Velvet Gentleman;” and reconceived, directed and performed in the 1919 George Gershwin musical “La La Lucille.”

In addition to orchestrating his own music, he has created orchestrations of classic musicals for regional theaters and opera companies.

In 2007, James Valcq returned to acting, playing Cosme McMoon in “Souvenir” at Boise Contemporary Theatre, a role he also played at American Stage Theatre, Stage Door Theatre Company and Third Avenue Playhouse. Additional credits include Feste in “Twelfth Night” and the Friar in “Much Ado About Nothing” at Door Shakespeare, Ernie in “Guys on Ice” at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Pierre in “How I Became a Pirate” at First Stage.

In October 2011, James Valcq became co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (with co-artistic director Robert Boles), where he has directed productions of “The Glass Menagerie,” “Almost, Maine,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Drawer Boy,” “Candide,” “Steel Magnolias,” “The Amish Project” and others.

***

The coronavirus COVID-19 slammed the door on Third Avenue Playhouse productions starting in March. The problem became an opportunity because a donor sprung with a cool million dollars to kick off a renovation project for the theater that is happening while the place is shut.

But that’s another story. This is James Valcq’s story, which is filled with surprises, like how he is connected to so many people, like “the Kopischke boys,” who perform at today’s Third Avenue Playhouse.

“Alan Kopischke just told me a story about when we were in a production of ‘The Music Man.’ I was 11. The Kopischke boys and I – and others, of course – were all in the boys’ band. I guess we were sitting in the theater, and Alan and Joel – the Kopischke boys – said, ‘Come on, let’s go, we’re going to run around outside.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t. I’m writing an opera.’ Alan told me he looked at me askance and looked down, and I had this manuscript paper in my hand. He said, ‘That’s exactly what you were doing,’ and I then said, ‘Well, okay, see you later.’ So apparently I was writing some opera when I was 11.”

Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, composing at age 12.

“Yeah, exactly. I don’t think it was quite like that. I don’t remember the piece in particular.

“Composing in earnest really got started when I was 19 or 20. I was still in college. I was working on series of revues at the Skylight Comic Opera in Milwaukee that were written and directed by Dale Gutzman. He has a theater of his own now across the street from the Milwaukee Rep on Water Street called Off the Wall Theatre. It’s an idea that just anything can happen here.

“We would do these whacky revues, and up to a certain point we took existing material and put it into the revues. Once in a while, Dale would write new lyrics and sketches for an existing song. At a certain point, Dale said, ‘Let’s write the score for this one ourselves, and let’s write a few new numbers for this. You write music?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can write music, I guess. I wrote an opera when I was 11.’ (Laughs). But I never said that. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m game, and I’ll go write some stuff.’

“My work in the shows was certainly serviceable for what the shows needed, but it wasn’t particularly original. There were style pieces. One was a holiday revue, so it needed big Christmasy Johnny Marks-sounding stuff. Then we did a show called ‘Beer Town Burlesque’ for a bawdy Broadway revue that asked also for a certain style of music for me to emulate.

“I wasn’t really particularly finding an original voice, but it was getting me into setting Dale’s spirit, collaborating, hearing people sing, sing my music, how it fits in their voice. And so they were very instructive and a really good starting ground for me. That’s how it started, doing those shows. And it was just kind of a whim.

“The official start with a published and produced piece would be ‘Zombies from the Beyond.’ It wasn’t long after the revues.

James Valcq in a publicity photo for “Zombies from the Beyond.”

“I always loved science-fiction movies and loved flying saucers. I thought they were the coolest thing – and that whole ’50s sci-fi milieu, if you will. I just thought a musical flying-saucer opus was just what the world needed (laughs hard), provided I could write a role for my sister, who was an opera singer and actress and one of the funniest people I have ever encountered.

“This was to be a comedy, by the way. I wouldn’t say a parody, but it was to send up the genre and the rather serious things that were behind those movies – you know, the nuclear paranoia and Red Scare and all that kind of stuff – but to look at it through a skewed comic vision.

“So we had been doing these shows. I won’t say how easy it was to write a show, but somebody just said, ‘James, let’s write a score,’ and a couple months later, the show was on the stage. I was smart enough to know that I was in a really lucky situation and wasn’t naïve or thinking, ‘Oh, this is the way it happens.’ It was really fortunate in while I was finding some kind of a voice that I had a venue.

“Colin Cabot, who was the managing director/producer of the theater at the time, as his own venture decided to produce a run of ‘Zombies from the Beyond’ at the Skylight theater. It wasn’t part of their season, but it was in that theater.

Claire Morkin performing with James Vaclq in “Souvenir.” (Third Avenue Playhouse)

“The women in the cast at that time were my sister Susan; Suzanne Graff, who is known to Door County people as (former) co-artistic director of Door Shakespeare; and Claire Morkin, who is known to Door County folks as one of our actors at Third Avenue Playhouse.

“Those three women stayed with the show – or were captive with the show, how ever you want to look at it – for a decade. We did the show in ’85 or ’86 in Milwaukee and in ’95, when Colin Cabot produced it Off-Broadway in New York, and the same three women were in it. The men changed over the years, although they were all terrific.”

The most important takeaway from “Zombies from the Beyond” in New York was, “Location, location, location. The show had a very short run. It got amazing reviews, wonderful reviews, but it was in a very out-of-the-way location in the Village. There was no walk-up theater business.

“Also, we had very stiff competition. We had three really high-profile Broadway openings. Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and Carol Channing all had shows open within the two-week window of when our show opened. There was just no way to crack any kind of publicity thunder or create any because any one of those people opening a show would have been all over the news. But all three of them in three different shows, you know, nobody wants to hear about us. Consequently, they didn’t.

“So, yeah, timing and location is what I learned. But the show did get me an agent, it did get published and it is still done. It’s not nearly as often as ‘The Spitfire Grill,’ but every quarter I get royalty checks for ‘Zombies’ as well. So people are doing that every year, which is great.

Image for production of “Zombies from the Beyond” by the The Visceral Company of Los Angeles.

“I lived in Milwaukee until 1989. My composing is what moved me to New York. It was a plan of mine to move to New York at some point, but I didn’t want to move there without specific plans. Before I moved there and said, ‘Hi, New York, here I am,’ I wanted to have something I was going there to do just to figure out how to navigate living there and see if it was something I wanted to keep doing.

“It was Stephen Wadsworth, co-artistic director of Skylight – there are a lot of co’s in this tale – who was Leonard Bernstein’s collaborator on Bernstein’s opera ‘A Quiet Place.’ I knew him pretty well through Skylight. He said that people at the musical theater writing program at NYU (New York University) were always asking him to recommend possible students to be in the program. Stephen said, ‘I never know who to tell them. Now I do. You should do this.’

“NYU would have master teachers come in – household names – as faculty and do lectures or actually work with you on projects. It was very exciting and exactly the kind of thing what I wanted to do going to New York.

“So I applied for the program for 1987, and I didn’t get a yes. The only things I had written up to that point were ‘Beer Town Burlesque” and “Zombies from the Beyond.” One of my friends said, ‘Oh well, New York can’t take a joke.’ But everything had been sort of on the jocular side and nothing to do with some tragic opus. You know, they wanted somebody more than a facile mimic. And there may be many things that I’m not, but I am and always have been a facile mimic as much on stage as off and in writing music as well, replicating that burlesque style as I mentioned. It can get installed in my head and sort of hunted out. It doesn’t tell you anything about me, but it can tell you something about the genre and the style of a piece. So that was that.
“It really annoyed me at the time, that I was rejected, especially having been so highly recommended by Stephen Wadsworth – you know, a pretty good person to be recommended by. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll show them. I’ll write something that has some substance.’

“I had a commission to write a children’s show based on a book called ‘The Pancake King.’ I don’t know too much about children’s literature, especially any contemporary literature, but it end up it wasn’t a classic but very well known. Seymour Chwast did the illustrations. Phyllis LaFarge is the author. Enterprising Theatre in Milwaukee had permission from Phyllis to write the book and the lyrics for their musical version based on her own book and asked me to write the score. So I wrote this score, and I had to write the vocal score on orchestra paper. There were so many parts. It was so complicated. It didn’t fit on regular staff paper like a score. It looked like some crazy 20th century opera.”

Whose fault was that?

“Mine! Mine. I sort of wanted to expand the parameters of my compositional voice for some program. I’m saying this with a bit of a smile on my face because it was, at the end of the day, a children’s show. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but there was a certain directness to the story, as I think there should be. And that doesn’t mean there can’t be any nuance, but the score was all nuance. There was so much subtext in that music – my God – and leitmotif and obbligatos and I don’t know what all. It was just kind of crazy.

“But we did have a really nice stable of singing actors in Milwaukee at the time, and musicians. It was beautifully sung and played in the production. But it was not easy, I’ll tell you that.

“And I also worked on writing some art songs. I had been in school at UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and knew some people who were still there, and they wanted to do original things for their recitals. So I was doing some art song settings as well, and these weren’t in any fake style. It was me trying to find my voice.

“The next time I applied for NYU, I was determined to get into that program, I sent all of that stuff. With the ‘Pancake’ thing I said up front, ‘It’s a children’s show. Don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics – which are good for a children’s show, but, you know, pay attention to the music, please. And there are some art songs as well. They’re not from theater productions, but you can hear a little bit more of me.’

“And lo and behold, they weren’t going to take me that time, either. But somebody dropped out, and they called me and offered me the spot, literally at the last minute.”

Preview of a name-drop: Jeff Herbst today is artistic director of Northern Sky Theater, a Door County professional company that performs only original shows.  

“At the time, I was in a production of ‘Cabaret’ at the Skylight. Claire Morkin was Sally Bowles, and Jeff Herbst was Chris in that production. I was one of the Kit Kat fellas, and I had to leave that show. And this isn’t like Broadway where people leave productions, it’s Milwaukee – if you are in a show, you’re just in it. I had to find and rehearse a replacement so I could take off on this adventure of moving to New York and being in the musical theater writing program at NYU and starting basically as a new writer.”

Monday: James Valcq’s stories continue with New York and “Chicago.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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