Assuming you haven't just emerged from a decade in cryonic suspension, you've probably noticed that Nashville has been showered with a steady stream of media love over the past few years. The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach took Bon Appétit on a tour of his favorite local dining spots. Forbes magazine hailed us as one of "The Next Big Boom Towns in the U.S." Jack White did a three-night stint on The Colbert Report. GQ declared us "Nowville." And in January, The New York Times called us an "It" City. In fact, the rush to praise Nashville was the topic of a February Scene cover story, "How We Became the Bomb."
The most visible symbol of our arrival may be Nashville, ABC's glitzy prime-time soap opera following the careers of a couple of country singers and the political machinations of our fictionalized city's power elite. But last spring, while the network was shooting the pilot on a soundstage just north of downtown, another landmark cultural achievement for our city — one that could well wind up having a more enduring legacy — was transpiring, oddly enough, 900 miles away in New York City.
On April 3 last year, The Manhattan Theatre Club presented the world premiere of The Columnist — the latest work by acclaimed playwright David Auburn, whose Proof won the 2001 Tony Award for best play — at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway. A dramatized biography of Joseph Alsop, the late journalist, influential conservative pundit and closeted homosexual known for his unflinching support for the Vietnam War, the play ran for three months, with John Lithgow earning rave reviews in the lead role.
You're probably asking, why is the premiere of a play about a Washington journalist, written by a New Yorker, starring a Los Angeles-based actor and presented on the Great White Way a red-letter day for Nashville's arts community?
The Columnist's path to Broadway really began in Nashville a couple of years earlier, when Auburn participated in the Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Ingram New Works Project, funded by Rep co-founder and philanthropist Martha Ingram to help playwrights develop new works. What began in 2007 as a simple artist-in-residence grant has evolved into a vibrant theatrical incubator that since 2009 has enabled 19 playwrights-in-residence to conceive, field-test and hone their scripts under the tutelage of the program's fellows — nationally known writers like Auburn, Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), Steven Dietz (Becky's New Car, Yankee Tavern) and this year's fellow, Theresa Rebeck, a gifted playwright best known for her television work, as the creator of Smash and a writer and producer on Law & Order and NYPD Blue.
The fellows, meanwhile, get a stipend that affords them the time to work on an original play of their own while they mentor to the up-and-coming talents. And perhaps most significantly, both fellows and playwrights-in-residence get access to professional actors, directors, designers and dramaturges, not to mention professional marketing and audience development resources. The culmination of the program is the Ingram New Works Festival, which features staged readings of the residents' and fellows' new works.
The Broadway mounting of The Columnist — which had its first staged reading on the Nashville Children's Theatre stage during the 2010 New Works Festival — is a huge feather in the program's cap. In particular, it's a testament to the determination of Rep artistic director René Copeland, whose persistence in bringing name writers to Nashville has helped it thrive. But it's far from the only success — several Ingram New Works residents have gotten their plays staged at theater companies around the country.
Still, The Columnist's Broadway debut is a clear signal that our city is developing a national reputation as a hothouse for the development of new plays. And Nashvillians currently have the opportunity to see the evidence for themselves: The Rep, the company that helped bring The Columnist to life, has mounted a production of Auburn's work, running through May 4 at TPAC's Johnson Theater.
Joseph Alsop, the man at the center of The Columnist, may be far from a household name, but in his heyday, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, the Harvard-educated New Englander was a widely syndicated political writer and a hugely influential voice in the nation's capital. Alsop had the ear of presidents. In the 1950s, he wrote a column comparing the spread of communism to the falling-domino effect; at a 1954 press conference, President Dwight Eisenhower drew on Alsop's analogy, which came to be known as Eisenhower's "domino theory." John F. Kennedy was a frequent dinner guest at Alsop's house, and came there to unwind after attending the balls celebrating his inauguration.
Originally, Auburn wanted to write something about the role journalists played in the run-up to the war in Iraq. "I explored that subject in a number of different approaches, but nothing felt right," Auburn says. "But I had also been reading a lot about Vietnam, and Alsop's name kept cropping up. I didn't know anything about him, and I was surprised how famous and notorious he was as a leading pro-war voice in that era."
Auburn's research revealed a man with a very complicated private life, which included a blackmail attempt by the KGB to expose his well-closeted homosexuality. "There were plenty of sources to draw on," he says, "and Alsop had a fascinating dramatic story. He was clearly a charismatic and flamboyant person I could build a play around."
The Columnist is Auburn's first play dealing with real-life characters and historical situations, so it was especially gratifying when Alsop's family attended the play in New York and praised the work. "They said that I had 'got him,' and that it was a fair portrait," Auburn says. "And I think it is a fair portrait of him — ultimately sympathetic, but warts and all."
Copeland is directing the Rep production, which features an outstanding cast, with David Alford — arguably Nashville's most important male actor of the modern age — in the lead role.
Prior to his involvement in The Columnist, Alford had no knowledge of Alsop. But Copeland urged him to read the script. And when he did, he realized it was, as he says, "a dream role."
"Alsop is a real person, and I didn't want to do an imitation," Alford says. "But I fell into a pattern of speaking, evident on the page — East Coast elite. And recently I saw a video of Alsop, and found I was already capturing his vocal inflections! It's been fun to learn about him."
Alford must grapple not only with Alsop's famously strong opinions — "He didn't care who he offended or what side of the political aisle you were on," the actor says — but also with portraying a gay man who lived in a time when homosexuality wasn't discussed.
"He was a product of his time," says Alford, "and he could not have had the influence he had if he had let people know of his sexual orientation. And that's what everyone did in that era. But the play's not about sexuality at all. It's about someone who is used to making an impact with his words."
Alsop could be cruel, bitter, insanely funny and witty — and Alford strives to make the audience feel a certain empathy for him. "They don't have to like Joe," he says, "but I want them to understand him. The play is also about a sea change in political discourse and reportage, and Alsop was really one of the last of his breed. ... I could not be prouder that this play that we first read in Nashville had a Broadway run."
Also in the cast is Jeff Boyet as Alsop's brother Stewart, a well-known Washington pundit in his own right; Jenny Littleton as his wife Susan Mary; plus Amanda Card, Patrick Waller, and, new to the Rep stage, Benjamin Reed as renowned journalist David Halberstam. Will Miranne plays a small role.
For Auburn, seeing his work evolve from its infancy in the Ingram New Works Project to last year's Broadway production to the current Rep staging has been satisfying. "The whole experience was a happy one," he says. "A beautiful production, a great cast and a good run in New York. Now we get to see it come full circle in Nashville — where it all began." (Read a review of the production, which opened this past weekend, here.)
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