The expression "not a dry eye in the house" gets massively overused, and Interplay's musical drama about the life of Woody Guthrie deserves better than to be summed up with a cliché. I, at any rate, did not cry all the way through this performance. I didn't so much as sniffle until Woody started singing about the big ol' sign sayin' "Private Property" at the beginning of Act Two. And I'd calmed down within an hour or two of leaving the theatre. You know how sometimes at the end of a gig or an opera everyone stands up and claps because, dammit, this is the kind of gig or opera where everyone stands up and claps at the end? This was the kind of gig where about a third of the audience stood up and clapped spontaneously because they couldn't help it.
So far as I can tell, the play is constructed entirely out of actual quotes from Woody Guthrie and all the good people who travelled with him. The programme implies that the writer had access to the (vast) archive of unpublished writings; but a lot of the vignettes were based around fairly familiar scenes and quotations. We get a convincing re-creation of Alan Lomax talking over Woody's guitar improvisation at the beginning of the Library of Congress tapes. The cast perfectly capture the contrast between Guthrie's oakie dialect and the cut-glass elucution of the BBC announcer when he appears on Children's Hour during the war ("Mr Guthrie is a very well known singer of folk songs in the United States of America" "Yes ma'am, but now I'm washin' dishes on the good ship Liberty..."). We see Woody learning harmonica from the black hobo by the railway ("just about the lonesomest music I ever did hear" ); and there's a big round of applause (from me at any rate) when he tells the audience that his songs are protected under U.S copyright and anyone caught singing them without permission "will be mighty good friends of ourn, cos we don't give a durn."
It's one of those non-naturalistic bits of total theatre, in which six actors play Guthrie at different times in his life, leaving the one woman in the cast to be all the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives who come into his story. The action starts with the dying Woody in Brooklyn State Hospital, and for the rest of the production the metal frame hospital bed is dragged around the stage to represent doors, tractors, automobiles (with en-gyne trouble) and trains (which are bound for glory). For the first half of the first act, I thought things were going to be maybe a little bit precious, like one of those over-earnest student drama groups. Maybe the show did linger too long over the shocking story of Guthrie's childhood -- his sister and father die in house fires, and his mother ends her life in an insane asylum. Things lift notably when the teenage Woody teaches himself to play guitar while selling bootleg whisky ("I thought it sounded awful purty") and really take off when Dan Wheeler takes over the role of the adult Woody during his career as performer, recording artists and left wing agitator. I didn't know the story about him tearing up a copy of a song called "Nigger Blues" on live radio and promising never to sing it again: the naiveté of not realising that the title would give offence, and the unselfconscious apology when this is pointed out to him speaks volumes about the man. The famous songs aren't milked: we only hear a couple of verses of "This Land" ; if anything the climax of the production is a set-piece "Union Maid" on a stage suddenly full of Stars and Stripes banners. I could probably have done without "Jesus Christ" being presented as a bit of a Gospel number, complete with a "hallelujahs" – it's clearly a Communist Jesus, not a Christian one, that Woody is celebrating. But I loved the moment when Woody, faced with the terrible possibility that he's inherited Huntington's Cholera from his mother, says that he is a religious man, but can't decide which one he likes the best. "Either Jesus Christ or Will Rogers" he suggests.)
Because the text is based on documentary sources, there is perhaps an absence of drama: we are shown what happened but there can't be any playwright's speculation about the man's off-stage or interior life. It stops short of being mawkish, but apart from a very brief reprise of "This Land" before the curtain call, there's no attempt to soften of create an upbeat ending for what's actually an appallingly sad story. The impact of the show depends heavily on the manner of the production: the choice of vignettes, the appropriate incorporation of songs into the action, the playful use of the hospital bed; the way in which all the famous and less famous people who cross Woody's path are briefly channelled by members of the cast. The production is going to go on tour (if it doesn't it will be a crime against theatre and music) so I don't want to reveal how too many of its theatrical conjuring tricks are done. Let's just say that in the final moments, Woody -- so crippled with Huntington's disease that he can only communicate by moving his eyes -- is visited in hospital by a certain young man with mussed up hair and a harmonica, who starts to sing "I'm out here, a thousand miles from my home..." It's one of the most affecting dramatic moments I've seen this year. Or, indeed, ever.
I didn't quite believe the review linked to from the WYP's website, which complained the production was little more than a tribute act for the benefit of fans. The clever construction of the show and its perpetual theatrical inventiveness makes it far more than that: it not only tells the life-story clearly and powerfully, but gives the audience the sense that they've spent the evening in the company of a living personality – about the best tribute you could pay to a musical biography.