Ford’s Theatre Gives Civil War a Modern Flavor

Posted March 27, 2009 at 3:04pm

Just when you thought the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth had wound down, Ford’s Theatre heats it up with its recent opening of the musical “The Civil War.—

With music by Frank Wildhorn and books and lyrics by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, “The Civil War— was first seen on Broadway in 1999.

“I don’t think the production will have a better venue than Ford’s Theatre,— said director Jeff Calhoun. Ford’s Theatre, of course, was where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

“The Civil War— features the battle between the Union army and the Confederates opposing the abolition of slavery, which began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, and concluded in April 1865, resulting in the death of 620,000 Americans.

Even though the musical features a war that happened a century and a half ago, Calhoun promised that the audience will be able to relate to what’s happening on stage and have a good time from watching this “incredibly moving epic.—

The music in “The Civil War— was created to sound more like a rock concert than a traditional musical, which relies heavily on plot and character and contains spoken dialogues and musical numbers.

In this production, the director decided to use a different approach. Unlike the Broadway production, Calhoun wanted his version of “The Civil War— to be “in memoriam— of those who died in battle instead of a re-enactment. Calhoun made this decision after watching a memorial ceremony last year of the 9/11 attacks.

“I did not know anyone who passed away during 9/11. But I was surprised how moving it was watching friends and family and lovers speak about the victims and I thought, That’s exactly what we should be doing,’— Calhoun said. “We should be in the present day, remembering and honoring the past.—

For this reason, Calhoun said the cast of 16 performers — “a collection of the best voices in New York and Washington, D.C.— — would not be wearing period costumes.

The 90-minute musical is staged in a concert-like setting with a seven-piece band and a multimedia presentation. “We will project into the stage imagery that will make the audience relate to the American Civil War experience,— video designer Aaron Rhyne said.

Rhyne said he has chosen photographs, paintings and documents depicting slavery, the lives of soldiers on the battlefield and the war’s impact on individual families.

Calhoun said using a multimedia approach would make the musical more in tune with the contemporary songs that Wildhorn had created. Wildhorn is best known for composing the music for “Jekyll & Hyde,— “The Count of Monte Cristo,— “Cyrano de Bergerac— and Whitney Houston’s international hit, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.—

“The musical score that Wildhorn had written is remarkable,— gushed Calhoun, who is developing a new musical titled “Bonnie and Clyde— with Wildhorn. “Usually in a musical, you may have two or three songs that you will like. In this show, each number is better than the next,— Calhoun said.

The lyrics of “The Civil War— contain quotes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address of March 4, 1861, Walt Whitman’s poetry, historical documents, diaries and letters.

Among these missives are ones that Maj. Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island had written. His “just in case— love letters (to be delivered if he died in battle) to his wife became the inspiration for the song “Sarah.—

Calhoun said there is no better time to watch “The Civil War— than the present. “Our nerve endings are closer to the surface,— he said. The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan will make watching the musical an “emotional experience— for the audience, he added.

“The Civil War— runs through May 24.