5 singers tell the Civil War stories in 'Rappahannock County'

The maelstrom of the Civil War resists staging. A dozen years ago, Frank Wildhorn's grandiose musical, "The Civil War," which aspired to convey the entire war, North and South, crashed less than two months after it opened on Broadway.

The creators of "Rappahannock County," the 87-minute evening of musical theater that will play this week at the University of Richmond, were determined not to let that happen. They pared their vignette-powered, all-sung action down to the personal Civil War stories of about 30 characters, real and imagined, in Virginia's Rappahannock County. They reduced Wildhorn's 28-member cast to five operatic singers who share the 30 roles, black and white, all Southern. The 17-member onstage orchestra is similarly chamber-sized.

The action takes the war year by year. The characters range from an old woman who sells pigs and spies on the Yankees to an embalmer who is growing rich on the war's carnage. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, known for his opera "The Grapes of Wrath," was the first to climb aboard this Norfolk-based project. Assignment: Write a piece of musical theater to mark the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest war in American history.

"I had just finished premiering 'The Grapes of Wrath' in Minnesota," Gordon says, "and I thought that, if I took this on, we would want to miniaturize the war in some way."

Broadway librettist-lyricist Mark Campbell was commissioned to join him.

"I suggested four singers and 17 players," Gordon says. "Mark liked that idea, but he wanted to add one more singer to break the symmetry of four. We started doing research. Mark wanted to keep it in Virginia and suggested narrowing it down to Rappahannock County. By setting it in one county, we were setting a limitation that made it all manageable."

Kevin Newbury was hired to stage the evening, completing the creative team.

"We had a dream team," Newbury says. "My biggest challenge was finding a theatrical vocabulary for telling the story that didn't require the singers to run offstage to change costumes.

"We took a very theatrical approach. By changing a frock coat or a bonnet, one character becomes another. Good direction is 90 percent casting. We cast people who were strong singing actors, people who could bring individual traits to each character."

Newbury and his designers provide historical context through the projection of Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs, period illustrations, documents and moving visual elements.

Although Gordon and Campbell conducted research in about 20 books, Gordon says they found Southern historian Edward L. Ayres' "In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863," which examines communities in North and South, the most inspirational. Ayres, who is president of the University of Richmond, signed on as the project's creative adviser.

"In my book, the Virginia county is Augusta County, in the Shenandoah Valley," Ayres says. "As history, it's based entirely on the written record. Mark and Ricky Ian needed to include a broad range of characters for whom diaries, letters, newspaper articles and memoirs did not exist and so they imagined Rappahannock County."

Ayres takes pleasure in the finished product. "I was, to be honest, surprised by how moved I was by the production when I saw it all together," he says. "There are not many examples of art based in American history that can hold its own both as art and history, but 'Rappahannock County' does."

"Rappahannock County" was commissioned jointly by Virginia Opera, Norfolk's Virginia Arts Festival, the University of Richmond and the University of Texas at Austin. It premiered in Norfolk last spring within hours of the 150th anniversary of the Southern bombardment of Fort Sumter that started the war.

Cost for commissioning and producing it: About $750,000, which was roughly shared by the four organizations, according to Virginia Opera's producing director, John Kennelly, who functioned as the show's producer.

"I think 'Rappahannock County' is something other organizations will want to produce, especially universities and orchestras," Kennelly says.

"Rappahannock County" will reopen later this month at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Roy Proctor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 September 2011