The movie "The Spitfire Grill," winner of the audience award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, went on to commercial and critical mainstream success. The story about a young woman who, when released from prison, begins a new life working for the proprietress of a small-town greasy spoon, impressed Wisconsin-native composer James Valcq enough to want to set it to music. Although his introduction was by way of a review in the New Yorker magazine, it would be months later that Valcq finally saw the film and knew what he was going to do. Valcq lost little time in interesting his fellow Wisconsin native and friend since high school, lyricist Fred Alley, in collaborating on the book, based on Lee David Zlotoff's screenplay.

It was easier that they could have ever dreamed to interest George Street's artistic director David Saint, who lost no time in contacting them after hearing a demo of the score given to him by Penny Fuller. Fuller, at the time, was appearing at George Street in "Do I Hear A Waltz." Valcq remembers that Saint called him up within days and said "I get stuff all the time, but I can't get your score out of my head." Following a three-day workshop at George Street, Saint put the show, which was completed exactly one year ago by these two guys from Wisconsin, into production.

The world premiere of The Spitfire Grill takes place on Wednesday November 29, 2000. This is a busy time for Saint, who is not only giving The Spitfire Grill the attention it needs but was preparing Down the Garden Paths (which Saint directed last season at George Street) for its Off-Broadway opening in mid-November. "Oh, he's been just wonderful, eight hours with us and four hours with them," says Valcq, who quotes Saint saying, "It's energized me."

During a rehearsal break, Valcq and Alley talked about their history. Alley, who is co-founder and Artist in Residence at the American Folklore Theater in Door County, Wisconsin, had collaborated with Valcq only one time before. This was at A.F.T. The show was The Passage, about immigrants. Valcq, whose credits include an adaptation of the classic children's book "The Pancake King," as well as the New York-produced "Fallout Follies," "Songs I Never Sang for My Father," and "The New Leaf," is a pianist and standby conductor for Broadway's Chicago.

They both admit that the film affected them so deeply that they plunged spontaneously and enthusiastically into the project. "It had all the elements of a great folk tale with magical qualities and with strong archetypal characters," says Alley. He immediately related to the people, having grown up himself in a small town not unlike that in the film.

Although the movie is set in rural Maine, Valcq and Alley have moved the action to Wisconsin, a landscape with which they are both familiar. It was the "mystical qualities" of the film and the "lyrical possibilities in the language" that Alley says instantly appealed to him. "It was exactly those qualities," says Valcq, "that me made me think of it as a musical. There is something beyond earthly realism inherent in what happens to the characters."

"Right away I thought it would be a better musical than a movie. You want to know what is in these characters' hearts, which is, of course, what a musical allows you to do," says Alley, adding "a character can address an audience directly in a non-self-conscious manner." Valcq, who received considerable critical acclaim for "Zombies from Beyond" when it opened off Broadway in 1995, says "More than any other piece I have written, however, The Spitfire Grill comes closest to expressing my own voice. I selected an indigenous American folk sound, using a guitar, cello and fiddle."

While a chuckle or two is shared talking about Valcq's Zombies..., there is room for more levity when I bring up such Alley opuses as Guys on Ice, and Lumberjacks in Love, which set box office records at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and are now moving to other regional theaters around the country. They agree that this collaboration is more in the traditional musical theater genre. Both Valcq and Alley are adamant that, despite the whimsical subject matter and campy-sounding titles of their previous shows, that neither of us "write[s] with a cynical edge." That these two guys from Wisconsin also don't want their work to appear corny is a factor that has led them to go out of their way to avoid fake or phony sentimentality in this adaptation. As Valcq assures, "All the joys and high spirits in The Spitfire Grill are earned by its characters undergoing pain and tragedy."

A big challenge for Valcq and Alley was their decision to shift the locale from Maine to Wisconsin. This, so that Alley could write in a dialect familiar to him. They explained that they were writing a character-driven book with songs that come from the heart, so it was important not to make it mawkish. Alley says his goal was for "honest self-expression and to keep it lyrical." For those who remember the film: Hannah, who has been running the grill alone, accepts the offer of the sheriff to employ Percy Talbot, an ex-con, who has just been released from prison after serving a five-year term for manslaughter. Percy, who is eager but not a very good cook, is grateful for help in the kitchen from Shelby, a local woman, who comes to the rescue when Hannah, due to an injury, can no longer work.

Conflicts arise when secrets are revealed, but trouble comes from Nahum, Shelby's bitterly unsympathetic husband, and from a mystery man who lives in the wood and lurks around the grill late at night to retrieve a bag of groceries that is left for him by Hannah.

Valcq says that with Saint's suggestion, the mysterious Eli, a character not explored to the fullest extent in the film, has now become a much more central figure and the emotional heart and climax of the musical. Alley is sure that Valcq's music will get a lot of attention, because "it doesn't sound derivative." Although Valcq says the method of telling the story is a throwback to Rodgers and Hammerstein ("my favorite composing team") where the characters sing emotions that they could not possibly speak, Alley chimes in quickly saying "James' music is very sophisticated." "That's right, Valcq answers, "The music is not in that style at all."

"Even though we follow much of the screenplay closely, the musical, about love and reconciliation, happily takes on a character of its own," says Valcq, admitting that they have taken some liberties with the way the film ends. "There is a darkness to the film, including the color-pallet. In our musical there is a greater sense of hope," which Valcq sees as an improvement for their purposes over Zlotoff's screenplay. Zlotoff had based his screenplay, in part, on an article he read about Vietnam veterans who hide in the woods.

A resident of New York City for the past twelve years, Valcq got his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin and his graduate degree 1991 in the musical theatre program at NYU. Although Alley attended the University of Wisconsin, he found that his tenure at A.F.T., which has grown into a major regional theatre, producing all original works for an audience of 55,000 a year, has been artistically satisfying, although this project was he says was "too tempting to resist." It is surprising, however, to hear him say "This is my first venture east."

"We couldn't hope for a better director, cast or designers. It's the A list," says Valcq. The show's credits confirm this. Beth Fowler is playing the role of Hannah. Fowler, who has appeared at George Street Playhouse in Other People's Money, and Greetings, earned a Tony-nomination for her performance as Mrs. Lovett in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd.

Garret Long is making her George Street Playhouse debut, as Percy. Janet Metz, whose Broadway credits include Marie Christine, On The Town, and Once Upon a Mattress, is Shelby. Metz is married to Michael Unger, who is directing the new production of A Christmas Carol at the McCarter Theater. Other cast members include Sean Arbuckle, as Sheriff Joe, Armand Schultz, as Caleb, Susan Mansur, as Effy, and William Otto, as Eli. Michael Anania, resident scenic designer for Paper Mill Playhouse, designed the settings, Tony Award-winner Theoni Aldredge, designed the costumes, and Howell Binkley, currently represented on Broadway with The Full Monty, designed the lighting. The choreographer is Luis Perez. What more could two guys from Wisconsin ask for?


Key Subjects: 
The Spitfire Grill, James Valcq; Fred Alley; George Street Playhouse
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
November 2000