When SCKBSTD opens its three-week run at the Virginia Stage Company, much of the buzz will focus on the production being Bruce Hornsby’s first theatrical foray. In fact, he and co-creator Chip deMatteo began their career as playwrights in high school in the early ‘70s.
“We were co-presidents of Zappo Productions from 8th grade to 12th grade,” Hornsby told me a couple of weeks before Christmas, “kids just trying to see what we could get away with. We sold worthless stock; we booked terrible bands for dances and changed their names. We wrote a couple of plays back then, when it was popular to name bands after cities. We named our first play Schenectady and finagled our way into having it produced as the Drama Club production at Hampton Roads Academy, where Chip went to school. Then we wrote a sequel called Son of Schenectady that was produced once at the local youth center here where they used to have sock hops.”
It’s a long road from the Williamsburg youth center to the Virginia Stage Company. In the intervening years, Bruce Hornsby became one of the biggest stars in popular music, winning three Grammy awards and selling millions of recordings. Chip deMatteo followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, becoming a silversmith (his dad was the Master Silversmith for Colonial Williamsburg), owning Hand & Hammer Silversmiths in Woodbridge since 1979.
The play itself has been several years in development and has gone through numerous permutations. The idea for Bruce to create a Broadway-style musical actually came from Broadway.
“Here’s the quick chronology,” he began. “In 2004, we released [the album] Halcyon Days. In 2005, I got a letter out of the blue from some guys at a company called Playwrights Horizons, on 42nd Street, a group that develops plays from their infant stages to take them as far as they can go. There’s a famous Broadway singer and actor named Brian Stokes Mitchell who was a big fan of Halcyon Days. At a party with Mike Raphael of Playwrights Horizons, he said ‘check out Bruce Hornsby’s record—there are three songs in the middle that sound to me like Broadway stylings. He should be writing a play.’
“Mike Raphael listened to the record and felt the same. So they wrote me this letter together. I got back to them and said ‘the idea intrigues me. As long as it’s enjoyable, then I’ll push the ball down the court. But when it gets to be a drag and a grind, I’m out, ‘cause I’m not that interested in it to be willing to suffer for it.’ And they said fair enough. They wanted to commission me to do this.
“So I called up my old friend, Chip deMatteo, and said, ‘Do you want to get into this with me on a creative level?’ He said, ‘Sure, what the heck!’
“Our first idea was a story about a civil war re-enactor. We thought it was a funny milieu, an interesting and odd scene. But I opened up the New York Times one day and read a review in the arts section of a play called Shiloh Rules; it was a play about a civil war re-enactor. And I thought if you hang your hat on a scene and somebody beats you to that, then you kinda got there second. In hindsight, Shiloh Rules came and went, at least so far, and that was the last I ever heard of it. I guess we could’ve continued down the civil war re-enactment path, but we didn’t.
“We came up with this other idea, and that was the genesis of the ‘sick bastard,’ or SCKBSTD on a Virginia license plate. And that has endured. It’s about a three or four year gradual process. It’s one thing to try to pull off a jukebox musical where you have all the songs and you connect some little storyline through that, or if you have an existing story. In our situation, everything came from nothing—the stories, the songs, etc. And it’s hard to do this well.
“We’ve had three readings over the last couple of years. Each time we’d come away from it looking at each other and saying, ‘We’ve got problems.’ You have to be a pretty tough self-critic to do any of this on a high level.
“We’ll learn a lot from this first production. You can’t really know if you’re doing well until you see it. That’s why in almost every case, they open a play somewhere way off-Broadway, out in the United States somewhere. We’re very fortunate that the Virginia Stage Company was interested in wanting to do this. We had a company in Pasadena, California that wanted to do it also, but we felt it made a lot more sense to do it here. It’s closer to New York and it’s obviously a lot closer for me, an easier commute! Although my old school, the University of Miami, where I’ve started the Creative American Music Program—the dean, Shelley Berg, made the same offer to come down there and develop it with their student drama group. But this worked out the best. Keith Stava and the VSC have been really great to work with.”
Stava, managing director of the Virginia Stage Company, is excited about producing the world premiere of SCKBSTD as this season’s entry in the American Soil Project, a series of original plays about the Hampton Roads region that has included Line in the Sand and Alive and Well.
“This is major,” he told me recently. “All of our shows are the real thing, but this is really big time. It’s a big production. There are fourteen in the cast—all from New York City—and a four piece orchestra.
“We’ve got a ton of real pros working on the show. The director, John Rando, won a Tony Award for directing Urinetown; Scott Wise, the choreographer, won a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway; our musical supervisor is Kim Grigsby, who has done lots of Broadway shows—she’s currently on Spider-Man. All the designers have major Broadway experience, and the cast too—Bob Cuccioli, who has the lead, did the lead in Jeckyll and Hyde. His fan club has been calling, ordering tickets.”
With all the excitement, both along the Great White Way in Manhattan and on Tazewell Street in Norfolk, the obvious question is: What is SCKBSTD about? Bruce Hornsby doesn’t want to give away too much of the plot but he did share this brief synopsis:
“A stranger comes to town and is insinuating himself into this previously placid scene, and striking fear in the hearts of the locals. The rumor mill runs rampant. The first act is basically ‘paranoia striking deep,’ people going ‘have you seen this guy, what do you think he’s doing?’
“There are nineteen songs—eight were on Levitate [the Hornsby CD released in 2009] and eleven are new. One of them is called ‘Paperboy,’ a song where the paperboy is spouting off all the crazy rumors about this guy.”
How does writing for a play differ from writing songs in general?
“I’ve really enjoyed the process,” Hornsby said. “It has not become a grind for me. I’ve enjoyed it because it’s fun to write to an assignment, to write to a specific idea or story that you’re trying to tell. It’s hard to come up with interesting ideas when you’re just writing songs, especially after you’ve been doing this for a long time and you don’t want to repeat yourself. You have to look further and further afield each year, hence my songs get a little crazier through the years—‘Black Rats of London’ and ‘What the Hell Happened to Me?’ I just want to be interested in the subject matter and another love song couldn’t be less interesting to me.”
It’s also been a totally collaborative process.
“Mike Raphael and David Riemer are the producers. Mike got us together with Clay McLeod Chapman, who is also from Virginia, to write the ‘book’ or script. So the three creative ‘brains’ are all from the Old Dominion. Clay came down here a couple of times to look around—for instance, the four gravestones from the 1800s that are out on the country road near here make an appearance.
“The script has gone through many revisions with the ‘committee’—Chip, Clay, Mike, David and whoever is working as our director. (We had Kathy Marshall for a couple of years but she had twins and took another play. We got a new guy named John Rando, who we love.) The committee will say ‘I think we need a song here about this.’ Chip has done that heavy lifting lyrically, and I’ve written about a third of the songs by myself. He’s written the lyrics for about two-thirds of the songs; he’s really clever and does good work. That’s been fun for me, to write to his lyrics. I haven’t done that many times before. I’ll take his sheet of lyrics and write the music to it.
“I’m pretty proud of the music. The main problem for me will be trying to get the Broadway singers to sing in a soulful manner. The way people are brought up in theater and stage music, it’s a different style. You feel like nobody here has listened to any Otis Redding records! They are very good at what they do, so that’s one of the main challenges for me—trying to ‘soul up’ the singing.
“My job here is to eradicate the glee club consciousness from their scenario. That’s my main line: eradicating the glee club consciousness from this Broadway scene.”
No, Bruce Hornsby won’t be at the piano for the Stage Company production:
“Our musical director is another Virginian, from Roanoke, who now lives in New York. Her name is Jodie Moore. She’ll be playing the piano. She’s doing a fine job; I’m not worried about her. The people that we’ve cast are going to do just great.”
After a twenty-five year recording career in which he has developed a reputation as a “do whatever I want to do” musician, Bruce Hornsby’s first musical will be just as eclectic as his wide-ranging songbook would suggest.
“It’s all over the place,” he said. “We’re not trying to write a rock opera here. I’m just trying to do what I do, which sometimes intersects with rock and sometimes doesn’t. Some of the songs are a little jazzy, and one of the songs is a very folkish thing that I’m probably going to cut with my good friend Ricky Skaggs.
“There is a song about Donald Trump that’s sort of ‘total theater;’ it’s called ‘The Don of Dons.’ There’s a grandpa who maybe has a little Alzheimer’s action going on, and he tends to wander off. One time the sheriff brings him back to the house, admonishing him for wandering off. And the guy gets his back up, gets all in a huff and says, ‘You can’t treat me like this. Do you know who I am?’ And he goes into the song. He thinks he’s Donald Trump!
“We have a song that we think is the housewives’ anthem, the feminist anthem, that’s called ‘Who Takes Care of Mom?’ There’s another one called ‘Where’s the Bat?’ about a woman whose husband drives her so crazy that she fantasizes about taking a baseball bat and whacking his head off.
“That’s what you live for. You get a bunch of creative people together in a room, people of like mind who can come up with this sort of thing.”
As opening night approaches, Bruce Hornsby remains philosophical about the lengthy process that has brought him and his childhood buddy Chip deMatteo to the gates of Broadway.
“I am a complete rookie so I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I’m using this rookie status to just relax about it. I’m going to do my best to help make it strong. In the end, I haven’t written the play, I just wrote the songs.”
Virginia Stage Company
January 18 – February 6
Previews: $20.00/Regular: $33.00-50.00
www.vastage.com; (757) 627-1234
copyright © 2011 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.