Reprinted from The Hartford Courant, June 1, 1996
By Steve Metcalf, Courant Music Critic
Copyright 1996, The Hartford Courant.
Almost since the moment the papers were signed at Appomattox, the Civil War has been one of the country’s most reliable industries.
Tourism, memorabilia, books, movies, traveling re-enactments—the country’s fascination with the War between the States has produced an unending flow of goods and services. And that flow has only increased since Ken Burns’ PBS documentary of a few seasons ago.
So it’s not so surprising that there should appear in 1996 a musical show based on that war.
What is somewhat more surprising is that the show’s songs would be authentic period tunes. Hundreds of these songs were written at the time, but few are remembered today.
The show, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” is playing through June 9 at Goodspeed-at-Chester’s Norma Terris Theatre. (It’s Goodspeed’s second Civil War show: “Shenandoah” had its premiere here at the main theater more than 20 years ago.)
Like most of the shows staged at the Norma Terris, “Battle Cry” is a work in progress.
In letters and diaries and other writings of the time, and in more than two dozen songs, the show evokes the drama and the passion, the horror and the despair, of this most poignant and personal of wars.
With just six characters, “Battle Cry” is more a historical compilation than a conventional book musical.
“The music came first,” says Jack Kyrieleison, creator and guiding spirit of the show.
“I started thinking about this idea more than four years ago when I began to look at some songs from this era. I was struck by how accessible these melodies still were. A lot of these songs were tremendously popular at the time, but I regret to say that most have fallen out of favor.”
The early 1860s spawned countless tunes that addressed the war explicitly, and “Battle Cry” includes a lot of these: the ardently patriotic “May God Save the Union” and “We’ll Fight for Uncle Abe,” the bitterly anti-war “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” and the novelty song, “Grafted Into the Army.”
Kyrieleison’s show takes its title from [George F.] Root’s stirring 1862 anthem, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” with its chorus proclaiming, “The Union forever, hurrah, boys hurrah!”
“Naturally Root’s work became very important to me,” says Kyrieleison. “And I was astonished not long ago when I was at a softball game my son was playing in. And I was talking to one of the other fathers about this Civil War show I was putting together, and he said, ‘Oh, my wife’s great-grandfather wrote some war music. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him—George Root?’ I just about fell over.”
The one composer of the period whose tunes tend to still be in active currency is, of course, Stephen Collins Foster.
Foster’s career was in decline by the time war broke out in 1861, but his melodies certainly helped furnish a musical backdrop to the struggle. “Battle Cry” uses such lesser-known Foster examples as “Oh Comrades, Fill No Glass for Me,” but it also features the still-fondly recalled “Beautiful Dreamer,” one of Foster’s last songs, written months before his death in 1864.
To adapt and arrange these songs for the theater was a task that fell to Michael O’Flaherty, the Goodspeed’s resident music director.
O’Flaherty set the tunes for various combinations of the six voices, plus a pit band of trumpet/flugelhorn, violin, guitar/banjo, drums and a conductor who plays piano and—this being modern musical theater—a bit of synthesizer.
“It was a fine line getting the sound right,” says O’Flaherty, who spent more than 400 hours on the project. “In a lot of cases there wasn’t much to work with other than a vocal line and a crude piano part that was often very corny. So we pushed the envelope a little bit with some of the harmonies and sounds, but we’ve also tried to preserve the original flavor and character of these pieces. These songs had to work not just as ditties around the piano, but as true theater songs.”
O’Flaherty admits that when he was first approached to do the arrangements, he was skeptical.
“I thought, oh, all that stuff sounds the same. But I have fallen in love with this music. It’s really very rich, beautiful stuff.”