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“What I love about this story is that these characters are not neurotic,” says director Walter Bobbie. “This is a pre-neurotic musical. It’s not the sensibility of Woody Allen or, even, Stephen Sondheim. These characters love fully and completely. They embrace their emotional lives and their hurts deeply. They forgive profoundly.”
That musical is Bright Star, currently in a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center. Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, it’s one of the most soul-stirring productions to come our way in a while, complete with a full-blooded, sophisticated narrative based on the legend of the Iron Mountain Baby (don’t Google it if you want to be surprised) that poignantly embraces the power of redemption.
“It’s not the hippest thing going on,” concedes Bobbie. “This is a kind of musical writing that is not current.” What it is, however, is sumptuous — steeped in traditional bluegrass and folk and performed by a pitch-perfect cast led by the magnificent Carmen Cusak. “You need someone who can bring great, authentic, emotional quality to a range of things,” says Bobbie of his star. “From giddy, silly girl to renewed, emancipated and healed woman at the end, she manages to traverse all that without any effort throughout.”
Martin and Brickell, both Grammy-winners, are the perfect pair to put a graceful, Americana shine in Bright Star. “It’s a story that has to be told in the cabins and the hills of North Carolina,” Bobbie muses. “I can’t imagine Jerry Herman doing big brass numbers about these characters or this story.” Martin and Brickell have co-written the score, with Brickell providing the lyrics and Martin the book.
“Usually you’re working with a composer and a lyricist,” says Bobbie. “In this case there are two composers and a lyricist. Steve writes these incredible banjo progressions, and then Edie sings and writes melodically on top of them. It’s a very unique process. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Bright Star may not seem as commercially driven as some of Broadway’s current offerings, but that doesn’t bother Bobbie.
“It has never been driven by some sort of commercial objective,” says the Tony-winning director of Chicago, the longest-running American musical. “It’s not a very obvious kind of show to do. And we’ve been allowed to create an environment where we could just devote ourselves to what it is that we are.
“I’ve been involved with shows where you have known commodity with a famous title and the objective was, You’re gonna make this sucker work!” he continues. “That’s never driven this project. It’s always been supported by the artists to see if they could come up with something special. And those experiences in the commercial theater are rare. They are rare and they are precious and however this turns out, I have to say it’s been an extraordinary creative experience for me.”
Bright Star runs to Jan. 10 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $45 to $175. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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