Last month, a group of men, women, and children, nearly 200 strong, loaded up their guitars, stuck their dreams in their back pockets, and headed across the Cumberland River to Soundcheck studios. They came from Ontario and St. Louis, from Cincinnati, Lexington, Stone Mountain, and Little Rockstar-struck Joads in search of that one big break, that long-shot chance to appear in a musical production on the storied Ryman Auditorium stage. Facing a stone-faced panel of decision-makers, the singer/actors and actor/singers were given five minutes to audition. After their short time was up, they’d either cut the mustard, or they’d locked their guitars back in their cases, topped off their gas tanks, and started to make the long drive home.
Over four grueling days of callbacks and second callbacks, playwright/director Ted Swindley, producer Steve Buchanan, and associate producer Paul Couch whittled the throng down to the lucky eight who’ll perform in the Ryman’s newest theatrical creation, Bye Bye Love: The Everly Brothers Musical. Currently in rehearsals, the show travels to the Cactus Theatre in Lubbock, Texas, for three weekends of workshop presentations before running in Nashville from May 14 through Oct. 24. To put audiences in the mood and to generate excitement about the show, the Everly Brothers will reunite for an April 29 concert at the Ryman.
Having held auditions in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Lubbock, and having emerged with only two child actors to portray the young Don and Phil for the Lubbock run, the production team knew they needed to discover some stellar talent in the Nashville auditions. Most importantly, they’d yet to turn up the stars of the showthe actors who would portray the adult Everly boys. Among those trying out were some country-music progeny: Cousins Will and Langdon Reid, respective offspring of Statler Brothers Harold and Don Reid, arrived from Staunton, Va., to audition together. Tall, husky, handsome baritones, their sound and bloodline were more Statler than Everly. They didn’t make callback.
Some performers were better singers than actors. Others had forgotten to memorize a monologue. Some weren’t certain what a monologue was. Many had talent but lacked ”the look“that mystical quality a casting team has locked in mind.
After one eager performer played ”Why Do Fools Fall in Love“ on keyboards, Swindley called him over to the table. ”Can you play guitar?“ Swindley asked.
”I know three chords,“ the young man answered, ”but I can learn a couple more.“
The director switched direction, ”Can you do a British accent?“ Immediately, the fellow began speaking in an off-the-cuff dialect. He stopped abruptly and queried, ”Is that too Australian?“
”Well,“ Swindley drawled, peering over his eyeglasses, ”the British Empire was large.“
Hopefuls took off work and lined up baby-sitters; some even offered to drop out of schoolnot just because they wanted to be in a show, but because they wanted to be in this show. They’d grown up listening to and strumming Everly Brothers songs, mimicking the fluid harmonies that propelled the duo to stardom on the country, R&B, and pop charts.
No doubt, many of these prospective performers came from a background similar to that of their musical heroes. The eldest of the pair, Don was born to Ike and Margaret Everly in Kentucky in 1937; Phil came along two years later, after the family had moved to Illinois. An accomplished musician in his own right, Ike was a firm believer in the power and potential of radio, and he instilled that conviction in his guitar-playing children.
In 1955, the family moved to Nashville, and within 24 months the Everly Brothers enjoyed their first of nine Top 10 hits with ”Bye Bye Love,“ a finger-snapping response to rejection. Over the next 20 years, with Don handling lead vocals and Phil singing harmony, the brothers became household names, releasing such hits as ”Wake Up Little Susie,“ ”Cathy’s Clown,“ ”All I Have to Do Is Dream,“ ”Let It Be Me,“ ”When Will I Be Loved,“ and ”Devoted to You.“ Their cover of Roy Orbison’s ”Claudette“ marked the great singer-songwriter’s break into show business. And as standard-bearers of 1960s rock ’n’ roll, they profoundly influenced the Beatles and other knights of the British Invasion. Members of the Grand Ole Opry since 1957, the Everly Brothers were among the first 10 acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
The Bye Bye Love production group is now faced with capturing this extended legacy in a two-hour song-and-dance show. Serving as both playwright and director, Swindley continues in his trademark role as ”honcho of the biomusical,“ a position he established five years ago when he brought Always...Patsy Cline to the Ryman for two blockbuster seasons. He followed that success by directing Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams; more recently, he has completed the ”treatment“ phase of Distant Drums, a new biomusical about country musician Jim Reeves.
Swindley knows his audience. He appreciates that the majority of people filling the hard wooden benches for his summer shows are tourists, or locals carting visiting friends and relatives around Music City. He adamantly defends his soft-sell presentation of colorful characters from American musical history. ”This is not Hard Copy,“ he says. ”I’m not trying to do exposés or sneak by a sordid story about a celebrity. These are tribute shows, and they’re celebratory.
”At heart, basically I’m a sentimentalist. I want [people] to hear the music of these guys I listened to and loved growing up. And I don’t apologize for it.“
In keeping with this spirit, Swindley doesn’t overplay the Everly Brothers’ acrimonious split in the 1970s. ”Some will say we’re avoiding anything controversial, but I don’t feel that way,“ the director insists. ”It was a natural separation, and they came back together in time.“
On Feb. 23, the final callbacks for the musical moved out to Opryland Productions. As Swindley stood among a herd of kettle drums left over from an earlier rehearsal, he observed the handful of performers who were still in the hunt. Arms folded across his chest, he narrowed his eyes as he scrutinized combinations of family membersboys who must look and sing like brothers, men who must look and sing like adult versions of those boys. He was, he admitted regretfully, ”playing God with people’s lives.“ At the end of the process, the production team cast 13-year-old Patrick Ryan Scott and 11-year-old Nathan Bud Chowning as the young Everly Brothers; Jeff D. Boyet and Matt Newton hit the jackpot and landed the roles of the adult Don and Phil.
Unlike Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, the Everlys are still healthy and able-bodied, and Swindley says both men have been extremely supportive of his endeavors. One evening this summer during the show’s run, Don and Phil will return to the Ryman Auditorium, where their sibling act first made headlines. They’ll sit in the audience and witness their songs replayed and their personal experiences laid bare. They’ll see themselves deified, having achieved the careers that thousands of young guys have only dreamed about.
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