Most Broadway musicals are based on an intriguing backstory. “South Pacific” had its origins in America’s Pacific campaign during World War II. “Les Miz” retold the history of the French Revolution. “Camelot” delved into old English lore and the legend of King Arthur. “West Side Story” reimagined the culture clash that erupted in mid-century Manhattan via a modern version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Suffice it to say, there’s a probable premise behind every successful story that makes its way to the stage and beyond.
Consequently, when comedian and musician Steve Martin and singer and songwriter Edie Brickell joined forces to co-create 2014‘s Broadway-bound musical “Bright Star,” the two tapped into a similar tradition by basing their work on a true story set in the mountains of Western North Carolina during the 1920s and ’40s.
The pair, who previously had worked together on the 2013 award-winning album “Love Has Come For You,” found their inspiration in the story of a literary editor named Alice Murphy who developed a working relationship with a young soldier she mentored after he returned home following World War II. As the intertwined tale of these two characters unfolds, the audience is transported back and forth in time to the accompaniment of Martin and Brickell’s original musical score.
“If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time believing me — you’d think I was lying,” Murphy sings in the show’s opening number. “Joy and sorrow never last, I’ll die tryin’ not to live in the past.”
That may have been a problem, at least as far as it impacted its initial audiences. Despite Martin and Brickell’s high-profile involvement and the number of awards it reaped later on — among them, several Tony nominations, the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical — the show’s Broadway run was surprisingly short-lived, lasting just over 100 performances from its initial previews on Feb. 25, 2016, through to its final bows four months later on June 26.
Despite a short Broadway run, however, Leann Dickson was enticed. A former drama teacher who notched 21 years at Bearden High School in Knoxville, and who, in years past, directed several shows for the Knoxville theater company known as The WordPlayers, Dickson was in New York City in 2016 scouting out Broadway shows for possible local productions when one of her former students suggested she check out “Bright Star.”
“I knew nothing about the show, but I was floored,” Dickson said in hindsight. “I called (The WordPlayers artistic director) Terry Weber and said, ‘We have to bring this show to Knoxville.’ A year ago, when I doing another show with the group, he asked me what I wanted to do the next year. I told him I wanted to do ‘Bright Star.’ So that’s how it all began.”
The group began auditions in January.
“It’s very, very different because the music is what one would describe as bluegrass, and that in itself makes it unique,” Dickson said. “It’s an amazing story. Without giving anything away, I’d describe it as a story of great loss and great redemption.”
In her director’s notes, Dickson suggests that she can relate to the story through what she described as a deep personal connection of her own.
“I am intrigued by how often and how deeply the story and its theme intersects with my own, even though I might be blind to that at first,” she wrote. “Over the last few years, I have pondered the power of sharing our stories with others. ... I can relate very well to Alice’s sense of loss; and when we chose this show, little did I know that the prayer I had prayed for someone I dearly love — for 30 years — would be answered.”
Dickson declined to offer additional explanation, but it’s clear that this play resonates with her in a very real sense. At the same time, she credits her creative team — music director and conductor Sheryl Howard, assistant director and choreographer Meghan Nelson, stage manager David Ratliff, and assistant stage manager Lucy Wright — for helping to bring the production to fruition.
Dickson’s original association with The WordPlayers began 24 years ago, after moving with her husband to Knoxville in the mid ’90s. Prior to that, she had been involved with a Christian theater company in San Francisco.
“I was burned out, but when I met Terry, he invited me to direct a show called ‘Singles,’” Dickson said
Clearly fate played a role in creating that connection. Dickson suggested that the same could be said of the characters’ journey in “Bright Star.”
“If you just lay down the facts of what happens in the story, it sounds so bizarrely far-fetched,” she said. “It has comedy and tear-jerking tragedy in it all at once, and it’s a very heartwarming story. It’s beautifully written. It touches your soul.