Paul Green's The Lost Colony was the first outdoor drama staged in America. Originally conceived to be a one-year celebration of the birth of the first English child in the New World, the play opened in 1937 but proved so popular that it has run ever since in Manteo, North Carolina, playing to over three million visitors.
Since that first performance, families coast to coast have enjoyed Unto These Hills, Hatfields & McCoys, Trail of Tears, The Black Hills Passion Play and dozens of other outdoor productions. This summer, 37 theaters will produce outdoor historical dramas, while 10 will stage religious pageants and 66 theaters will produce Shakespeare festivals. National attendance for 2004 reached nearly 2,000,000; predictions exceed that number for 2005.
It's clear that outdoor drama is big business.
Families on family vacations need to buy meals and snacks, secure lodging for the night, gas up the car, and buy admission tickets and souvenir t-shirts and more snacks. Categorized as leisure and business ventures, the earned revenues nationwide are staggering. In 2004, North Carolina's leisure and business revenues alone topped $13 billion. But these outdoor experiences are more than souvenir postcards and t-shirts. They serve as a colorful and dramatic link to America's founding heritage. Often played on an expansive stage set into a mountainside, with dozens of actors, dancers, musicians and theatrical technicians, these outdoor dramas are the products of skillful authors with an eye for historical detail and a flair for dramatic invention.
One such gifted writer is Billy Edd Wheeler, a singer, composer and songwriter who spent the first 16 of his 70-odd years in the mountains of West Virginia. Billy Edd also is the author of two novels, several books of humor and 16 plays and musicals, including four outdoor dramas.* A graduate of Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, in 1955, he received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from them in December of 2004. He served in the Navy's Air Force, studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and managed United Artists Music Group in Nashville. An inductee into the Hall of Fame by Nashville Songwriters International, Billy Edd has written over 500 songs. He has received 13 awards from ASCAP for songs recorded by 150 artists here and abroad, including Judy Collins, Bobby Darin, The Kingston Trio, Neil Young and Elvis Presley. "Coward of the County," made popular by Kenny Rogers, and "Jackson," which won a Grammy for Johnny Cash and June Carter, are two of Billy Edd's most famous songs. He is also a painter of considerable talent and a man who loves to talk about drama.
Thank you for visiting with us.
Thanks for the invitation.
Before you shape that first draft, what kind of research do you undertake?
I usually take at least a year to gather material, read books and articles, and conduct as much personal research as I can. In the case of Hatfields & McCoys—which dramatizes an actual, documented feud—Ewel Cornett, the director, and I put out the word we were looking to interview relatives of both clans.
Did you get any takers?
We met Willis Hatfield, one of Devil Anse Hatfield's living sons, who was quite elderly but still proud and alert. He is featured in the show as a pre-teen. Ewel and I traveled all over West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, and talked to dozens of relatives. It was curious how some descendants played down the violence involved in the famous feud, and others played it up, even mentioning names of other people who were killed over the years, though mostly just hearsay, and undocumented. Everyone seemed to take sides, but without any remaining animosity.
I bet you heard some interesting stories.
Try this one. Henry Clay Parsons was a preacher born in 1877. He had worked for Devil Anse Hatfield and shared a lot of his observations of the family. He told us he was courting a woman in a public saloon one day when three men approached and asked if he didn't think it was time to leave. Well, Mr. Parsons said he wasn't ready to go yet. One of the men countered by saying, "But you feel yourself gettin' ready to go, don't ye?" The preacher said he reckoned not. With that, one of the men struck him on the shoulder. The preacher wheeled around and knocked the man down, pulling out his Belgium .45 as he did so. A second man was upon him, but the preacher brought his .45 down on the man's skull, knocking him out. The third man just ran away. Reverend Parsons said he was glad he didn't have to kill any of them. I never got the sense that he was embroidering the story to enhance his own image. He was simply telling what had happened. This sort of color and detail is invaluable to a playwright. It all contributes to the authentic feel of the drama.
History is chaotic and often without an orderly sense of progression. The author has to shape historical events into an intriguing drama. How much license can an author take?
My philosophy is that a drama should be historically accurate, but not to the point where accuracy begins to drain out the entertainment value of the event. There are numerous sources that can be researched for names, dates and chronology. But when you sit down in the amphitheatre you expect a sense of dramatic momentum, a feeling that you are viewing the essential heart and soul of the historical event. Authors almost always have to take some liberties to make history work on stage. In A Song of the Cumberland Gap, I created a sidekick for Daniel Boone, a man I called Chinquapin Jones. He became Daniel's childhood playmate. He and Daniel traveled together to the Yadkin, in Carolina, and then on through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.
Were any objections raised?
The piece was commissioned by National Geographic and I feared the powers-that-be would object to this made-up character, but they didn't. When the show came out as an LP and cassette tape, the printed material that accompanied the recording indicated Chinquapin as a composite of the many frontier companions Daniel Boone must have had during his travels.
A companion humanizes Daniel Boone.
Indeed, and he has a confidant, someone to whom he can reveal himself. And a companion helps me write dialogue that passes on information to the audience.
Much of your work as a composer/lyricist is intimate in nature. Do you find it difficult to work on large outdoor stages that almost dwarf the individual actor?
Most of my shows involve at least 35 to 40 cast members, including singers and dancers. But when you're dealing with a big outdoor stage, it can't be treated like an indoor show. Some scenes seem to beg being done expansively to utilize the space. Texas uses a several-hundred- foot wall of the Palo Duro Canyon as part of its upstage playing area; The Lost Colony uses Shallowbag Bay, whose waters lap at Waterside Theatre on Roanoak Island, as a workable backdrop; Trumpet in the Land features a stampeding herd of elk. Almost all outdoor dramas incorporate their natural environments to give their productions a sense of breadth, and to give the audience's eye some relief. Big sweeping movements of dancers, also, can provide the audience with a sense of energy, keep them focused on the visual panorama of the story. Then when it is time for intimate scenes and songs, with actors downstage, the audience is ready to come in closer, emotionally and psychologically, and get inside the hearts of the central characters. It's all a balancing act.
How do you approach the writing of the music and lyrics for a project?
That's a huge question.
And impossible to answer, I realize. But can you share anything about your process, the impulses you get when you are deep into a work?
In some ways it's a mystery. Like, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? With me, it could involve a big spark, or a subtle hint. It's also partly instinct; it's in your blood. I mean, you're not just a writer, you're a songwriter. It's also a craft. By that I mean it's not all inspiration or God-given talent. There are tricks of the trade, approaches to editing and rewriting that require old-fashioned elbow grease. A major step in my songwriting career happened when I met Norman Gimbel by accident in the middle of Manhattan. Norman was a world-class lyricist, but I didn't know it at the time. By coincidence his wife had picked up a copy of my first album, Billy Edd USA, 16 original songs on the Monitor label. Norman said to me, "You're a natural songwriter, Billy, but you'll never make any money at it." I asked him why. He said, "You just take the songs as they come out, but most of them need polishing. Some have too many themes. You don't edit or shape them." He was extremely affable and unpretentious and ended up taking me to the Broadway offices of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of the most successful songwriter-publisher-producing teams in the world. They helped me analyze how songs are put together and how to edit songs that are too long—by co-writing my first hits with me.
What was the main thing you learned from that period?
The main thing I learned from Leiber-Stoller was to look for the idea. What's the song about? How is it set up, how is it developed, and then concluded? I soon learned that the idea is the song. Fortunately, in playwriting, ideas for songs come at you from the script. You know what you have to say, what character is going to say it, and how. From this, you begin to strum a series of chords on the guitar, looking for a tempo, a key, a feel. I usually write words and music at the same time. Often, to help me remember a melody and how it scans, I'll write a dummy lyric line. It may have nothing to do with what needs to be said, it just has the right cadence. But often it ends up being the line.
So it's a combination of inspiration and craft.
And the content of the material—people's names, key words or phrases, what they wear, the price of goods, names of towns, dances—and the sense of how long a scene should go, and how many levels of meaning I can put into a song or a duet or a multi-character scene. You do it long enough and it becomes somewhat natural.
Natural doesn't mean easy, does it?
Not at all. Some days I can barely finish three lines. Sometimes it all comes at you like an avalanche. As a general rule when you write musicals you should not have songs in the story just for the sake of having songs. They should help propel the action forward and reveal something about the inner thoughts and aspirations of the characters.
When I was writing Young Abe Lincoln, one song almost wrote itself, long before I was supposed to get to it. But I couldn't wait. When you get these impulses, images, whatever you want to call them, you learn not to pass them by. Write them down. When it comes time to insert the scene or the song into the flow of the play, then it will be all set to go. Anyway, it was a scene where Tom Lincoln, whose wife has died recently of cow sickness, decides his kids need a mother. A traveling tinker tells him about Sally Johnston, a widow woman in Kentucky whom Tom Lincoln knows. He tells the kids he's going to Kentucky to get them a Christmas present.
How did the scene play out?
In the scene, Tom Lincoln approaches Sally Johnston and comes quickly to the point: My kids need a mother, and your kids need a father. So why don't we get married. She replies, aren't you forgetting something? He says, no, he thinks he's stated his case clearly. But she says he hasn't once mentioned why people usually get married. He's still clueless. She says, "Love." This gets him into the song which I called "Aw, Shucks." His lyrics go:
Her response is, "Aw, Shucks," and then she sings her reply in the same format. They close by singing a brief duet at the end.
Aw, shucks.....aw, shucks
I should-a thought about it but I don't know a thing about love
But, dad blame, if you'll share my name
We'll get married now and maybe somehow
We can fall in love when we get back to Indiana
'Cause when it comes to talking
I can't ever make the words come out....exactical
I know how to raise pigs and cows or build a house
Your kids need a daddy, my kids need a mommy
And I gotta admit I need somebody too
And, Sally, I'm not blind, how could I ever find
A woman half as fair and kind as you?
How did the music evolve?
The tune I used for "Aw, Shucks," for example, was a very simple 3-chord song, C-F-G, because the scene itself is simple, straight-ahead and direct. Even so, my arranger Dennis Burnside added color and depth to the score. Dennis has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra several times, recording his compositions and arrangements. He is a veteran of thousands of hours in the studio who has worked with vocalists of all ages and genders. For leading roles, he selects a middle range for the character involved, something the director has to keep in mind in casting the show, since actors in outdoor drama usually sing to prerecorded tracks. An excellent arranger is a blessing in this business.
How do you determine the number of songs you'll need for each show?
It's partly instinct and common sense. It has to do with timing, stepping away from the show and trying to be objective. Is it getting boring? Is there too much talk? Are the songs too much alike? Is there a need for changes in energy and tempo?
Do you ever bring in a critical outside eye before the show opens?
You can get too close to a project; fail to see the holes in it. During rehearsals for Young Abe Lincoln, the director and I decided to hire a fresh eye to look at the show. We called Dudley Saunders, drama critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He came to Lincoln City, watched the show, and then commented: "The show is about young Abe, but I'm not seeing enough of him. He's not central to enough action." We took his comments to heart and wrote Abe into more scenes and gave him another song. And in Hatfields & McCoys, I invited a talented friend I'd met years prior at Yale Drama School, Gladden Schrock, to come and look at the show. We had a Romeo and Juliet love story between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanne McCoy. Gladden's assessment was that Roseanne McCoy faded away with no explanation of what happened to her. He said the audience had too much invested in her, so her story had to be resolved. An excellent observation. Ewel and I wrote her a swan song in the vein of that old folk song "Barbara Ellen," the theme of the rose and the brier. It tied up the loose ends of her romance with Johnse Hatfield and also redefined the emotional devastation the continuing feud was bringing to both families.
The central figures in the actual feud never met each other after the feud began, is that correct?
But in your play, they do.
Only in a dream. In a Hollywood version, Devil Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy engage in an actual shoot-out. I could never stretch the facts that far myself. But I did want to indicate the waste that such hatred can create. When I suggested to Ewel that we put them together in a dream sequence, he balked. He thought it would destroy their dignity, weaken their characters. But I persisted, suggesting we at least give it a try. He relented.
How did the scene develop?
I wrote a song that comes in the middle of a scene where the preacher is trying to get Devil Anse to get down on his knees and pray, to give his heart to God. Devil Anse complains that it's hard to be a good neighbor when your neighbor plots against you and tries to kill you. But in his dreams, he confesses, he and Randolph McCoy are good friends. The lights change and he holds out his hand. On the opposite side of the stage, Randolph McCoy holds out his hand, and they meet center stage.
Then they do a jig and do-si-do, smiling and having a good time.
Anse: How did you sleep last night-night-night?
Randolph: Fine, how 'bout you-you-you?
Anse: Here's some snuff for your charming wife
Randolph: Thanks, here, I sharpened your pocket knife
Duet: Oh, it's nice to have good neighbors
It's fun to have good neighbors
And I never had a neighbor better than you-you-you
Oh, it's nice to have a friend to depend on
And what a friend you are
Because of you I say a little prayer
And thank my lucky star
A fantasy scene where both men are naive and almost childlike.
Yes. As if to say, in effect, look at the damage our hatred creates, when deep inside we all want a sense of safety, peace and harmony.
Do the townspeople and area citizens influence the projects in any way?
It's impossible to get a successful show up and running without getting the support of the people—all the people, not just motel owners and other business people. It can become a source of pride and excitement. This is a great way to reward those who have contributed money and other resources, and also a way to create word-of-mouth publicity. In a sense, townspeople become hosts to the state and nation. It's fun to take guests and other visitors to see a show you're proud of, one that entertains but also gives them a look at your culture, your heritage. For Johnny Appleseed's premiere, the show was still being polished. We had several inexperienced cast members and some sound problems. But the SRO audience loved it. Many in the audience were descendants of characters portrayed on stage. They were thrilled to see their forefathers and mothers up there, and were often moved to tears.
They feel they are a direct link to history.
Absolutely. Outdoor dramas are successful in part because what the audience is seeing actually happened right there, or at least close by. The characters lived and died there, and their stories have been told and retold down through the years. I often sit in the audience and listen to locals whisper, "I knew that woman's cousin; she lived on Cripple Creek," or some such place. The mystique of local legends drives most outdoor dramas.
What's your next project?
I've been approached by the mayor of the town of Berea, Kentucky, about writing a new outdoor drama. He, the city administrator, the director of tourism, and businessmen of Berea and nearby Richmond think it would help bring tourist dollars to the area. They are in the process of assessing county-wide interest and designing fund-raising strategies.
I have a warm place in my heart for Berea, having studied at the college and accumulated lasting friendships in the town and general area. In fact, as a student I acted in Wilderness Road, the outdoor drama written by Paul Green, the father of outdoor drama, to celebrate Berea College's centennial. It premiered the year I graduated, 1955, and then ran for several years. The town is planning to stage this new historical drama with music at Indian Fort Theater, where Wilderness Road was performed, and has been given a 25-year lease by the college essentially free of charge.
Any ideas on how you might shape the drama?
Nothing's definite but I'm pretty sure I'll use two or three of the tunes relating to Daniel Boone from A Song of the Cumberland Gap. Daniel Boone is such a big name in Kentucky I feel obliged to feature him in some way. Not as a central character, but certainly as an introductory presence. And Cassius M. Clay, for example, is Madison County's most famous citizen, our first minister (ambassador) to Russia, and an extremely colorful and brave man who donated the land on which the college was founded in 1855. Clay was a fervent emancipationist who, ironically, owned slaves himself while preaching and literally fighting against slavery; he eventually freed his slaves. John G. Fee, founder of Berea College, was a fiery abolitionist as well. Both men will have major roles in the drama.
Is this original Clay a relative of Muhammed Ali?
We're trying to determine what connection there might be. We know that Ali was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay. By some early stories, Ali's father was to have claimed descent from the Madison County Cassius Marcellus Clay, saying that his grandfather was "raised on the property of Cassius M. Clay. He was with the old man, but not in a slave capacity. No, sir."
It sounds fascinating.
Every bit of it, and there's still a considerable amount of research to conduct. Other people of Kentucky will be featured as well, but the majority of emphasis will be placed on Madison County. Violence and threats of violence permeated much of the region's history, but there was also strong faith in education, in the law, and in the brotherhood of man. And love stories, inspiring and heartbreaking. There will be a good bit of music and dance in the show while focusing on the historical expansion of the region in view. At least that's the hope at this point.
Good luck with the project, Billy Edd. And thanks for taking time out of a busy schedule to visit with us.
Special thanks to Scott J. Parker, Director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama. Established in 1963 as a national advisory and research agency, the Institute is housed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For information concerning the Institute's history and the programs and services it sponsors, log on to www.unc.edu/depts/outdoor
* Billy Edd Wheeler: Hatfields & McCoys –book and lyrics, with music by Ewel Cornett; opened in 1970 in Beckley, West Virginia. Young Abe Lincoln –book, music and lyrics; opened in Lincoln City, Indiana, in 1987. Johnny Appleseed –book, music and lyrics; opened in Mansfield, Ohio, in 2004. A Song of the Cumberland Gap: In the Days of Daniel Boone –book, lyrics and music, a recording commissioned by the National Geographic Society; opened in Pine Mountain, Kentucky, in 1979.
Interview conducted by Kent R. Brown.