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Bringing the Dead to Life

[whitespace] Cumberland Blues
The Art of the Deal: A game of cards seals the fate of a town in 'Cumberland Blues'; the players are Jenny Lord (top left) and Lisa Recker, and (bottom from left) Ric Iverson, Colin Thomson and Jonathan Williams.

Local playwright Michael Norman Mann turns Grateful Dead tunes into musical

By Steve Bjerklie

GRATEFUL DEAD lyricist Robert Hunter once told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air that the enigmatic first lines to his and the late Jerry Garcia's song "Uncle John's Band"--"Well, the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore/'Cause when life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door"--refer to the decline and fall of the Haight-Ashbury.

But playwright Michael Norman Mann hears a different story in the same lyrics. In Cumberland Blues, Mann's original musical set to songs by the Grateful Dead, a preacher named Peter Jones Jr. sings Hunter's words to a chorus of hard-luck miners at the broken-down Palace Hotel. "Who needs a miracle?" asks the Bible-thumper just before breaking into song. "Goddamn, well I declare," the miners answer in chorus.

Cumberland Blues, which opens June 6 at the San Jose Stage Co., was first imagined by Mann at a Grateful Dead show in 1993 as he watched Garcia and his bandmates signal to each other with eyebrows and facial expressions during a jam on "Cumberland Blues," the song. "They captured that breaking-into-song feeling for me," Mann says. "It was their silent communication that made the song appear to be spontaneous, as the song would be in a classic stage or movie musical."

A rock & roll genesis notwithstanding, Mann's show is no tie-dyed Tommy. Instead, Cumberland Blues is the dark side of Oklahoma!, a bleak yet transformative story about family ties in circa 1949 Cumberland, Md., a destitute mining community. Throughout the play, Mann threads classic Hunter-Garcia songs from the band's evocative Workingman's Dead and American Beauty albums, along with a handful of other tunes by the pair, including the unrecorded love ballad "I Will Love You."

"The challenge was to make the text and the lyrics seem as one artistic voice," says Mann, who grew up in San Jose and first began writing plays as a student at UC-Santa Cruz. "But I was able to do it because of the power and imagery in Hunter's lyrics."

Indeed. The Workingman's Dead and American Beauty collections contain some of the most memorable of Hunter's many compelling lyric images: the Dire Wolf, the Candyman, Annie Beauneu "from Saint Angel," the drifter whose strange friend meets him at the levee (Cumberland Blues includes the so-called lost verse of "Friend of the Devil": "You can borrow from the devil/You can borrow from a friend/But the devil give you twenty/When your friend got only ten"; Garcia didn't like the words for some reason, and this concluding verse was neither recorded nor performed).

Perhaps because the albums were recorded in 1969-70, when the band was struggling to survive both a drug bust and a major embezzling scandal involving its manager, the songs are at once wistful and melancholy. Garcia's rural melodies conjure up a simpler, less complicated era when there "ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait."

Mann is a self-admitted Deadhead whose previous work, Box 27, focused on gays in the military and was given a best-drama award last year by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. That show received enthusiastic reviews for productions in New York, North Hollywood and Los Gatos (where it was produced by Tangelo Theater Company). In 1993, Mann was writer in residence for Tangelo, which mounted several of his works, including Godot Is Dead and Separate Crossings, as well as Box 27.

THE MUSICAL centers on the broken dreams and new hopes of the Jones family and draws its power from the same "deep blues," as Mann calls it, that color so much Hunter-Garcia material. "It's a true emotional state as the singer is feeling it. I guess it hearkens back to that feeling of 'breaking into song' that is what makes musicals work in the first place," Mann says.

The story begins when Mindy Erickson ("Melinda" in the song "Cumberland Blues"), the semiadopted daughter of Peter Jones Sr. (Mann created him from the lyrics to "Black Peter"), who owns both the Cumberland mine and the Palace Hotel, writes to Peter's four sons to say that Peter Sr. is dying. One son, Peter Jr., is a preacher; another son is in trouble with a woman named Bertha ("Don't you come around here anymore"); a couple more are hard-luck gamblers; and, oh yes, Mindy is in love with preachin' Peter.

The whole town of Cumberland is worried about its fate just as Doc Pierce is worried about Peter Sr., but the miners are used to trouble: after all, Peter Sr. got title to both the mine and the flophouse years ago in a nice hand of poker. By the time the cast sings "If the thunder don't get you, the lightning will" from "The Wheel" at the final curtain, "everyone has lost everything except for each other," comments Mann.

The show leaves intact virtually all of the lyrics to the songs. Audience members who know the material will be able to sing along from the very first bars. "The amazing thing to me was, I didn't have to change a single 'he' to a 'she' or a 'hers' to a 'his,' even though I had permission to do so," observes the playwright. "The original lyrics fit perfectly."

Wisely, Mann didn't try to bend his story to accommodate tough-to-fit songs such as "Casey Jones" and "New Speedway Boogie," though "He's Gone," which Hunter wrote specifically about the rip-off manager (Lenny Hart, who was, unfortunately, Dead drummer Mickey Hart's father), is recast into a lament by the sons after irascible Peter Sr. dies.

Mann was also strict about using Hunter-Garcia tunes, so Bob Weir's "Sugar Magnolia" isn't included, either. In keeping with the spirit of the original songs and with the time period and locale of the show, a five-piece jug band, not a faux Grateful Dead, will perform the score.

Though the show has the blessing of the Grateful Dead, Hunter and the surviving Dead members are at this point keeping a respectful distance from Cumberland Blues. It's Mann's project, not the Dead's, all agree. Also, there is a feeling among all concerned that if the Dead make statements before the show even opens, audiences might assume the show will be some sort of psychedelic rock opera a la Hair.

Already, the L.A. Times has made a comparison to Tommy and Paul Simon's Capeman, which greatly annoyed Mann, Hunter, the Dead and everyone else connected to the show. Cumberland Blues is a throwback to a classic period in American theater. "This is such a traditional musical, it's like Rodgers and Hart do mining," says Mann, who adds that he very purposely avoided writing a story about the '60s so that audiences could hear the songs in a fresh, nonclichéd context.

"What I'm hoping is that the people who like traditional musicals will come out, enjoy the show, and go home thinking, 'Wow, those are really great songs. I never knew that's the kind of thing the Grateful Dead played.' And I'm hoping that Deadheads come to the show and have a kind of mirror experience: 'Wow, I didn't know musicals are so cool.' Of course, I want a lot of people in between to come on out and have a good time as well."

Cumberland Blues previews June 5 and runs June 6-July 5 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$19 ($25 opening night). (408/283-7142)

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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