Theatergoers who walked out of the Broadway hit Mamma Mia! singing Abba songs may be in for another good time. In the same way that show cleverly used familiar old songs to tell an original story, a new musical does the same, using well known songs of the late Dan Fogelberg.
Two Los Angeles writers have been working on the show for seven years, and the LA insiders have chosen Nashville for the premiere.
The idea for the show came from film producer and actress Kate Atkinson. Grooving to Dan Fogelberg songs on a long car drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, it dawned on her that the lyrics, and even the long instrumental sections, lent themselves perfectly to a stage musical.
"I was listening to Nether Lands for probably the 10th time, and there’s that beautiful, orchestral opening," she says. "I said out loud, 'This is the opening of a Broadway musical.'"
She teamed up with Karen Harris, a veteran writer who had worked on General Hospital, All My Children and The Incredible Hulk. The pair conjured up a story about a pregnant teenager who is forced to give her baby up for adoption, tracking the estranged mother and son through the colorful '60s and '70s.
The central theme is that everything happens for a reason.
Fortuitously, Fogelberg's widow, who lives in Maine, said she'd be in Nashville if they wanted to make their pitch for music rights. Neither of the writers had ever been, but after that, they would come back many times for the show they named after a beloved Fogelberg song, Part of the Plan. They learned that Fogelberg had lived and recorded in Nashville early in his career, and had even written the song "Part of the Plan" in the city. Though they are entrenched in LA, all signs pointed to Nashville for the opening.
"LA's a little more — I could get in such trouble for saying this — but it's not as theater-friendly. It's a film town, it's a studio town, it's a TV town," says Harris. "What Nashville gives us is real interest."
Indeed, Nashville has shown interest. The city's music heavyweights have come out of the woodwork to support the show. More than half a dozen now serve on an advisory board, says Harris, introducing the producers to local musicians and promising to bring Nashville's big names to see the show.
"Some very wonderful Nashville people (who) said, 'Let me be part of it,'" Harris says, "whether it's the head of ASCAP, the head of the Nashville office of NARAS, the recording academy, and agents and managers."
The producers found that Fogelberg has personal ties and musical resonance to many in Nashville — luminaries like Garth Brooks credit Fogelberg for influencing their style. But the most important pitch was to Kathleen O’Brien, president and CEO of Tennessee Performing Arts Center. It turned out to be an easy sell.
“They got me at Dan Fogelberg,” O’Brien says. “I had to fight back tears.”
O’Brien is such a fan of Fogelberg’s music that she has 30 portraits of the artist on her iPad and a clock made from a Fogelberg vinyl album on the wall in her office.
“Even though he’s been gone, his music lives on,” she says. “His music is just beautiful in terms of composition of the notes, but his lyrics are just – where did he get this? It’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. How did this come to him? I mean, he was an old soul for sure.”
After a series of readings in Nashville last year, O’Brien was impressed at how the writers wove the story around well-known songs like "Same Old Lang Syne."
“I felt like the writers nailed the moment. That song could have been written for that moment but it wasn’t,” she says. “They were able to write a story and incorporate the right song at the right moment in this continuum two-act play, and so that appealed to me.”
TPAC Takes A Gamble
In fact, O’Brien took her enthusiasm one step further. Until now, TPAC had mostly presented touring shows, which are finished works. They’ve made modest investments in new Broadway shows just to be supportive, and last year they put some money into a local run of Evita. This time, O’Brien is taking TPAC into the realm of the serious players in theater: becoming a co-producer.
“It’s a huge step, where now we’re part of the team that makes decisions, we’re part of the team that helps devise the budget, we’re part of the team that weighs in on casting — that’s very different, very, very different, and it’s getting us much closer to the art,” she says.
They also have financial risks and potential rewards going forward. TPAC injected half a million dollars into the show, and O’Brien slated it as the season opener to the Broadway Series. If the show ends up touring the country or making it to a New York stage, TPAC will continue to profit.
But even with a Tony-nominated director, musical arrangement by Grammy winners, a Broadway actor playing the lead, and other parts going to talented Nashville songwriters, O’Brien admits this is high-risk investing.
“Hopefully we will be rewarded back financially,” she says. "We’re not trying to just throw money down the drain, but it’s a balance of trying to contribute to the artistic world. If people don’t do that, we’ll never have shows on Broadway that will then come to us. So it’s trying to fill that pipeline of new work. … It’s really good art and hopefully really good business.”
After its September premiere with 18 performances in Nashville, the producers don’t have expectations that the show will hightail it to a Broadway stage. It’s not ready. In fact, the Nashville performances are developmental, meaning there is more tweaking ahead. But they do hope for a national tour. And the city that has opened its arms to Part of the Plan will continue to boost the show like it has skin in the game — because it does.