Saturday, June 6, 2009

Civil War Voices

Published in L Magazine, February 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version.

A new musical written by Lincoln attorney Jim Harris looks at the Civil War through the eyes of five individuals, one of whom was related to the author. But don’t expect the program to be a dry history lesson. “Civil War Voices,” to be performed at the Lied Center on February 13 as part of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, is entertaining, humorous, passionate and thought-provoking, and tells a timeless story in a fresh way.

The process of writing the musical evolved over a number of years, Harris said. It started when he discovered a diary kept by his great-great uncle, Joseph Henry Harris, who lived in Oak Bowery, Alabama, and fought for the Southern Militia during the Civil War. Although he had serious doubts about the wisdom of secession, Joseph Henry Harris (affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe”) still wanted to be supportive of the South, and this internal conflict is brought out in the diary.

Harris began giving talks based on the diary, what he calls his “Uncle Joe Talk,” ending with the final entry—a prayer for reconciliation and forgiveness. About the fifth or sixth time he gave the talk, he added a mournful rendition of Dixie to the final prayer.

“I heard noises in the audience, and I looked out and a number of people were in tears,” he recalled. “Before I had added music, they were just simply saying, ‘My, what an interesting diary.’ But when you add in the music, it adds a different quality to that story.”

A while later, Harris went with his brothers on a business trip to Georgia. While they were driving from Atlanta to Savannah, it occurred to Harris that they were taking roughly the same path that General Sherman took on his famous March to the Sea. All of a sudden Civil War songs started running through his head, and an idea came to him. If he could find other interesting stories and combine it with songs from the period, it would make a great musical.

He discovered fascinating first-hand accounts of four other individuals: Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave, bought her freedom, and worked first for Jefferson Davis and then as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal dressmaker; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union Soldier and the hero at the Battle of Gettysburg; and Theo and Harriet Perry, a married couple who wrote love letters to each other while Theo fought for the Confederacy. Harris decided to base the musical on the writings of these four people, as well as his great-great uncle’s diary.

Harris, who had never written much of anything except legal briefs, enlisted the help of Senator David Landis, who had written a one-act play based on the life of George Norris. In addition, Robin McKercher, who is currently the head of Doane College’s theater department, helped build structure into the play and serves as the director of the show.

Choosing the songs was the easiest part of the process, Harris said. Because he was familiar with the music of the period, specific songs would jump out at him as he wrote the story. The pieces are what Director Robin McKercher calls “The Greatest Hits of the Civil War” and include familiar pieces such as “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Goober Peas,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and several traditional spirituals.

When it came time to find an arranger, Harris went to Dietze Music Store and asked for every songbook with music from the Civil War period. One composer stood out far above the rest: Mark Hayes of Kansas City, known world-wide for his arrangements of spirituals, hymns and folk songs. His unique take on the traditional songs will surprise the audience, Harris said.
“I did not want people falling asleep in an 1860’s parlor,” Harris said. “I wanted it to be new. It’s certainly respectful of the original genre, but it’s surprising and there are moments when it sort of blows the roof off the house.”

Director Robin McKircher said Harris was “very lucky” to land this collaborative relationship with Mark Hayes. “The two of them have really honed a very meaningful, very emotionally heartfelt show that’s filled with great pathos and humor.”

Robin McKircher, who served as the artistic director of the Lincoln Community for almost eight years, first met Harris when Harris acted in a play called, ironically, “The Civil War.” Last spring Harris asked McKircher to direct what was to be the premiere showing of the play, a fundraiser for an Alabama museum. McKircher suggested they perform it at Doane College first, where it caught the notice of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Committee.

“Civil War Voices” incorporates Elizabeth Keckley’s often quirky and unusual recollections of life in the Lincoln household. She recalls the pet goats that Lincoln loved, much to the consternation of his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln make an appearance in the musical as well.

The show is a tribute to Harris’s parents, both of whom loved music and history. Harris’s mother was a pianist and violinist, and his father appreciated all kinds of good music. Harris grew up surrounded by music and participated in musical theater throughout high school and college. Harris’s wife, Vicki, is also a violinist and pianist and has her own studio.

Harris’s father was from Opelika, Alabama, and his mother was from McCook, Nebraska, so the family commuted between the two states, spending the school year in McCook, where his father worked at his grandfather’s store, and summers in Opelika, where his father had a farm.

His summers in Alabama gave the Nebraska boy a strong connection with the South. He grew up during the “tail end of segregation,” and remembers when he couldn’t go with an African-American friend to the theater because his friend had to sit in the balcony.

“It bothered me, but it also really interested me to learn more about what this was this all about,” Harris said. “My dad had a very innate, natural grasp of what America was about; he was very perceptive. He knew a lot about the history of the South and so I learned from him.”
Harris’s father founded the Museum of East Alabama in Opelika, which sponsored the showing of “Civil War Voices” last spring. His mother, who is still living at age 96, founded the High Plains Museum in McCook. The musical will be performed in McCook on February 21, as a fundraiser for the Fox Theatre.

The cast includes some of the Lincoln and Omaha’s best performers. Harris himself will play the part of Uncle Joe. Although the costumes are from the Civil War Period, the show has a contemporary rather than a “dusty, antiquated feel,” said McKercher.

“It’s timeless in its message,” McKercher said. “The stories Jim has concentrated on are stories of individuals who find beauty and joy. The solemnity of some of these occasions and the heart that these characters have all sewn up in the cataclysm of what they faced at that time is really quite inspirational.”

All tickets for “Civil War Voices” are general admission and are available at the Lied Center Box Office by calling 472-4747. Cost is only $15 for adults and $10 for students.

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