Excerpted from The Hartford Courant, May 31, 1996

By Claudia Van Nes
Copyright 1996, The Hartford Courant.

CHESTER —”Did you change the lyrics to ‘Marching Through Georgia’ so you wouldn’t offend Southerners?” a woman in the audience asked Jack Kyrieleison after the curtain fell on “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a musical created by Kyrieleison and being staged for four weeks at the Goodspeed at Chester.

No, Kyrieleison said, he had not fooled with that Civil War song nor any of the other 20 or so numbers that the nimble cast of six sang and danced through the musical.

About 80 audience members remained in their seats after the performance a week ago Thursday beyond the echo of the last applause to talk with Kyrieleison and the director, choreographer, set designer, cast members and others involved in staging the musical.

It was a chance to answer the kind of nagging questions people have after a movie or play: Why did that character say this? Why didn’t you include more background? I’m confused about what happened after so-and-so fell off his horse.

At the Goodspeed at Chester, those questions are welcome, as are criticisms and even personal remarks.

“My grandson and his class are coming to see this play,” a woman with a Southern accent said from a third-row seat, “and I’m not sure they’re going to get much of the Southern viewpoint. I’m a little concerned.”

“They’ll have a lot to discuss with their teacher later, won’t they?” director Ron Holgate replied.

People who see the June 6 production of “Battle Cry of Freedom” will also get a chance to stay afterward and talk it over with the people who staged it. The discussion could be seen as an added treat after an evening at the theater, but the folks who run Goodspeed at Chester also consider it a necessity.

The original musicals staged at the 200-seat theater, which was once a turn-of-the-century knitting needle factory, are works in progress and the weekly “talk backs” help mold the productions.

Aside from being a part of this creative process, talk backers could be witnesses to a future Broadway hit that they can say they had a part in shaping.

Because the musical is really a working model for a hoped-for, full-scale production, there are only six actors playing all the many parts in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a small orchestra in a scaled-down pit and an effective but not technically dazzling set.

The daring reach is there, however. This musical, which depicts the heart-rending struggles of the Civil War from its inception through Lincoln’s assassination, takes its dialogue from existing letters, diaries, speeches, books and memoirs. The words of Abraham Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and many more are used, as are the songs of Stephen Foster and others.

“Finding the songs was the easiest part, because the Civil War produced a lot of music,” Kyrieleison told the audience.

Not so easy was dramatizing that war without casting Lincoln in a part.

“It was very, very clever leaving Lincoln out,” was one of many favorable comments from the audience.

Kyrieleison talked about the creative struggle he had working this bit out and credited his wife with coming up with the use of John Hay in the President’s stead.

As the talk-back audience filed out into the lobby and to their cars, they were still talking.

“Fabulous. Makes you wonder what they could do with a cast twice that size,” said a voice from the dark parking lot.