There’s a thirst for musicals these days, a return to song and dance that’s smitten movie theaters and local stages alike. Maybe it’s a return to form, maybe it never left at all–cases have and can be made for both. Whatever the attraction, Andrea and Paul Ferguson felt it in 1996, when they staged a surprisingly successful musical version of local author Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream. There was great demand afterward for a soundtrack and follow-up piece, and the pair soon founded Ride Again Productions, named for the rides at Coney Island where wishes for multiple trips down the track come true. The organization set out to create new musicals based on the works of prominent local writers like Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle and Doris Betts.
Seven years, one full-on main stage musical and several one-hour benefit performances later, the Fergusons are having another go at it. On Aug. 21, they’re bringing a bluesy musical adaptation of Edgerton’s searing novel Killer Diller to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Studio Six Theatre.
Andrea credits the strength of the local writing scene and its family feel for making Ride Again’s goals that much easier. “By the nature of where we live, you don’t have to go very far out of the area to find major well-known writers who are not only accessible, but also incredibly supportive of one another’s work,” she says. “That atmosphere is very conducive to creating new theatrical works.”
It still begs the question: why make novels into musicals, with moving parts, choreography and characters bursting into song? “It’s a reaction to going to so many standard musicals,” Andrea says. “I think the kind of theater we’re trying to put out there tries to integrate the elements a little better. I can either give you a monologue or give you a song, and a song is more fun.”
A strong workshop reading of an hour-long version of Killer Diller at last year’s N.C. Literary Festival encouraged the Fergusons to flesh it out. Killer Diller turned out to be an easy fit, as Paul had worked off and on for years with Edgerton in his UNC Performance of Southern Writers course. The book, about a wayward youth-turned-Christian struggling between a desire to be a preacher and his dream of having a blues band, features song lyrics throughout. Edgerton, an accomplished musician in his own right, produced a five-song cassette of blues to accompany the book, and Paul adapted the songs into the musical. Other traditional blues and gospel songs for the musical, like “Jesus Dropped the Charges” and a show-stopping rock take on “This Little Light of Mine,” were written by Turner Walston and Billy McCormick. But when the Fergusons wound up a few songs short in July, they turned to Edgerton.
In just days, the author, on vacation in Ohio, was playing the new works to the Fergusons over the phone. Edgerton has attended rehearsals, but has tried to keep his participation minimal, as he decided he must focus on either writing or a production, not both. Plus, the experience is just a little too much for him. “It’s kind of both flattering for me and a humbling experience to watch people become the characters you’ve thought about for a long time working on your book,” Edgerton says. “I feel really lucky that it’s being done.”
“So much of what Killer Diller is about is having issue with taking things at face value, and I think where we are right now as a society, I think we’re asking a lot of questions and learning what not to take seriously,” Andrea says. “At the same time I think we’ve got to keep our hearts light, and this show does that. It’s incredibly funny, very entertaining and it’s kind of sexy.”
Coincidentally, an independent film version of Killer Diller just wrapped shooting in Missouri, with the hopes of obtaining a distributor for a fall or winter release. Edgerton is currently at work on his own musical adaptation of his new fall novel, Lunch at the Piccadilly. The Fergusons, riding the high of turning out a successful production of Killer Diller, have already begun to adapt a Smith novella, The Christmas Letters, for their next musical.
Ride Again is steadily becoming more of a chorus than a name.
Killer Diller runs Aug. 21-Sep. 14 at Studio Six Theatre, Swain Hall, UNC. An opening-night gala following the premiere will feature refreshments, a chance to speak with the creators and writers and exclusive advance copies of Edgerton’s new novel. Tickets are $10-$15 ($25 for opening night and the gala), with $5 student rush tickets available 10 minutes before each performance. Buy tickets at www.rideagain.org or call (866) 463-8659.