Thursday, September 6, 2012

Getting to know Fannie Lou

Continuing our series of guest posts is Felicia Hunter, composer, book writer, and lyricist of the new musical Fannie Lou. Telling the story of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Fannie Lou is not only a powerful work of musical theatre, but an important one as well. With their first New York performance coming up on October 6th, the 95th anniversary of Fannie Lou's birth, Felicia Hunter shares the story of her show's journey (and be sure to go to the end of the post for an exclusive discount for readers of this blog).

My original musical Fannie Lou began as an idea that wedded history, music and drama. What if, I thought, the story of Fannie Lou Hamer were told not only through an artistic work that presented her voice, but gave considerable weight to contrasting perspectives as well?

Fannie Lou was inspired by the life of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, she grew up poor and had to leave school before reaching the seventh grade to help her family make ends meet by working in the fields. At the age of 44, in August of 1962, Mrs. Hamer decided to register to vote. She had never voted before, and was determined to exercise her right as a citizen. She, and others in the group of prospective voters that day, were turned away. Thus began Mrs. Hamer’s public life as a voting, civil and human rights advocate.

In my writing process for Fannie Lou, many of the songs came first; I started by telling different elements of the story through the music and lyrics. The book followed. As characters and personalities developed while I went through the intricacies of completing the book, more songs were written. A few more came afterward.

Although I was aware of Mrs. Hamer and her work, the idea to create a musical came while I was reading a biography about Mrs. Hamer written by Kay Mills, titled This Little Light of Mine. What I learned about her was so inspirational and motivating that I thought her life and determination would translate well as a theatrical work.

One of several musical influences for Fannie Lou is the compelling work Jesus Christ, Superstar. I'm amazed at how the writers succeeded in retelling an age-old story through the eyes of the antagonist and, at the same time, made that story palpable for modern audiences. Because Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice even attempted -- much less succeeded, in my opinion -- to walk that intricate tightrope makes Jesus Christ Superstar one of my favorite musicals of all time.

What they did is what I wanted to do with Fannie Lou. I wanted to utilize artistic conventions to tell a story of heroism, dynamism and personal sacrifice in an unconventional way. And, at the same time, even though we know the ending (although arguably the voting rights story is still being written), take audience members on such an intriguing journey that they wonder what will happen next.
Also with Fannie Lou, I wanted to show how Mrs. Hamer’s story is relevant for young theatergoers and modern audiences. Although the action takes place 50 years ago, the themes are very pertinent today. I think that although we’ve made a lot of social progress over the past few decades, in some ways we’ve reverted as well. I think Mrs. Hamer and others who worked so hard for basic human rights would be quite surprised, and disappointed, to see some of what’s transpired over time.

So, all of these elements -- artistic viability, good story-telling, compelling and memorable songs, riveting dialogue and socially relevant themes – are what, I believe, make Fannie Lou a must-see musical. And, there are quite a lot of people who seem to agree with me. Already, more than a month before we open, the first performance of Fannie Lou is nearly sold-out. That comes after two well-received readings of portions of the production, one in Stamford last year, the other in New York City this past spring. The early popularity of Fannie Lou demonstrates that there’s an audience for this kind of work.

The greatest challenge has been working with a shoestring budget. When I started out, I had no choice but to be composer, lyricist and book writer. If I wanted to do the project, I had to do it myself because I didn’t have any money to hire collaborators. What I’ve learned, however, is that when you work hard, even with very little resources, you might just get lucky and find talented people who, like you, are drawn to the artistic merits of a project. We have some wonderful people working on Fannie Lou, and I can’t wait for audiences to see their talent. There’s still very little money -- just enough to produce the one-day, two-performance premiere. But hopefully the premiere will attract interest from backers who can help take Fannie Lou to the next level, the Broadway stage.

At its core, I think what appeals to audiences is the personal struggle, and ultimate triumph, told in Fannie Lou. I would love to see this move on to a Broadway run, perhaps for four or five weeks next spring. As our early ticket sales indicate, it has an audience that is anxious to see it. There’s more information about the show, including cast and crew members, song excerpts and links to historic information, at www.fannieloumusical.com.

I hope readers of Emerging Musical Theatre will come to see Fannie Lou when it has its Off-Broadway world premiere on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 -- the 95th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer's birth. There’s an exclusive 30 percent ticket discount for Kim’s blog readers that can be accessed by entering the password Kim on the ticket site. Tickets are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/260528.

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