Published in Pasadena Magazine October 1999
Mavis and Mona; Pump Boys and Dinettes. Jim Wann has created them all.
Born in the small-town South, in the town of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee (looking out for nearby Chattanooga), Wann’s heart remains below the Mason-Dixon Line, even though he lives in upstate New York. His musical compositions and theatrical creations are rife with Americana, harking back to times of bench-seat diners (“Pump Boys and Dinettes”), intrepid explorers (“The Great Unknown,” about an 1869 expedition into the Grand Canyon) and unforgettable outlaws (“Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James”). His latest venture, for which he served as composer, lyricist and writer, is “The People vs. Mona.” His wife, Patricia Miller, is co-writer.
The new musical is set in the present, but feels, Wann admits, “like ‘Mayberry RFD’ thirty years later.” We’re back in the south, in a little town named Tippo. “There actually is a Tippo, Mississippi,” Wann explains. “It’s where jazz singer Mose Allison is from. I named my town in honor of my affection for Mose’s work. That’s the inside story.”
The ‘outside’ story is that “Mona” is sort of a mystery, comedy and musical combined, with emphasis on the narrative and the personal relationships — including interracial casting, a little class consciousness, and some bite to some of the songs.
Most of the action takes place in the courtroom, during the steamy murder trial of singer/actress Mona Mae Katt, the town’s ‘bad girl’ who’s accused of killing her husband of ten hours, C.C. Katt, owner of Star Records. In Tippo, this is the “trial of the century.” The defense attorney, Jim Summerford, our storyteller/host, may have something going with the defendant, and with the Prosecutor, Mavis Frye.
On hand to testify are a bevy of colorful locals, including a gossip columnist, a parking violations officer, an evangelist, a coroner and a dairy farmer. Needless to say, everyone has a murder motive. So, the question is not only who dunnit, but who’s gonna win Jim Summerford.
The score leans heavily toward traditional American: primarily folk and blues. The rousing gospel number, “You Done Forgot Your Bible,” Wann explains, “is essentially a theological argument about punishment and forgiveness. The prosecution vs. the witness. The Old vs. the New Testament. The pastor singing the song is a woman. If the piece had been set in the fifties, as we’d originally intended, it couldn’t have a female pastor or a black judge.”
The show is written for a cast of seven (most doubling up roles), but according to Wann, “four or five of them have to be top-flight musicians.” That’s Wann’s signature presentational style, what he calls “musician’s theater,” where most of the actor/singers accompany themselves onstage. He originated the style in “Diamond Studs,” and carried it into his wildly popular “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” Some consider these pieces more like concerts than theater, but no one denies that they’re rollicking good fun.
Recruiting instrument-playing actors is not as big a challenge as it sounds, says Wann. “Almost every musical theater actor today has had experience in shows like ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes.’ When I first started in the seventies, not a lot of people had these skills.” Some of the specifics of who plays what are written into the script. The defense attorney/narrator should have a folk-singing, guitar-playing, bandleader style (kind of like Jim Wann, who’s played the role). The court clerk is on keyboards, and the judge plays percussion (including the gavel).
Last year, “Mona” was one of four shows chosen by ASCAP for a musical theater workshop in L.A. Then there was a reading at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Paul Lazarus was there. Lazarus, a veteran of theater and TV, is also former artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse, and he soon signed on to direct the Pasadena production. Since the last workshop, Wann has written four or five new songs, so Pasadena Playhouse is getting a new version of the piece.
Wann says his family has served as his inspiration. Like all good Southerners, he says, “we naturally all had strong dramatic instincts.” The singing talent came from his father, the storytelling ability from his mother. But he was always convinced he was going to be a big league baseball player. In high school, after he threw his arm out, he bought a guitar from a pawnshop and taught himself to play. “For years, it was mostly out of tune,” he chuckles. He formed a group that played mostly folk and rock, “essentially the same elements in my writing today. From the folksong tradition of storytelling. Theater, of course is telling stories.”
To hone his storytelling acumen, he became an English major at the University of North Carolina. In the creative writing department, he says, “I was taught by some of the best Southern fiction writers.”
Wann stayed in Chapel Hill for awhile, putting together another band. He had grown up on Woodie Guthrie, Appalachian folk songs and bluegrass. But he heard a lot of R&B and soul music on the radio. “And,” he adds, “I grew up in the sixties, very much influenced by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Van Morrison and Randy Newman, folks who took songwriting to a whole different place.”
He and the band’s pianist, Bland Simpson, started writing some songs about Jesse James, and before they knew it, they had a “saloon musical,” ‘Diamond Studs.’ The show, which charmed critics off Broadway, ran for about eight months in 1975, then went on the road, and now is having a gala 25th anniversary re-mounting in Chapel Hill.
“It was a magical experience,” says Wann. “I was 26, I was a guitar-playing Jesse James. I’d aim my guitar at the bankers and use the instrument as a prop. Here we were, these kind of hillbilly-looking kids making $75 a week, and all of a sudden, we get great notices in the New York Times. That’s my version of show business. But I thought that was gonna be it.”
Then, his 1981 musical revue, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” took New York by storm. It was so successful off-off Broadway, it moved to off Broadway and then on to Broadway itself, not to mention a TV special for NBC. Over the years, it has turned into a little cottage industry.
“‘Pump Boys’ was much more of a New York kind of piece,” says Wann, “even though it was set in the South. Everyone working on it lived in New York. It was developed in cabarets and clubs. It had a certain amount of New York hipness and savvy.”
Now, in his newest new musical, Wann is heading West. He’s creating “The Great Unknown” for the high profile theatrical producers, Dodger Productions. The piece focuses on John Wesley Powell, the first explorer of the Grand Canyon, “a complicated, dark character with kind of an Ahab-like obsession,” as Wann puts it. Bill Hauptmann, who wrote the book for “Big River,” is writing the book for the new show, which is being shopped around to regional theaters. “No nibbles yet,” Wann says evenly. “This calls for a cast of 20. The bigger the show, the harder it is to get produced.”
But at the moment, Wann’s attention is on “Mona.” And he’s convinced that “people will be able to walk out singing and humming the tunes. Joy is something I know I can bring to the musical experience.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.