Woody Guthrie’s words still ring true

Publication date: 
May 4, 2012
Author: 
James Reed

It’s a valid question: Does a theatergoing crowd want to see a stage production about Woody Guthrie, the plainspoken but pointed troubadour who became the ultimate American folk hero? Vice versa, do Guthrie fans want to see his life dramatized in musical theater?

“Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,” which comes to the American Repertory Theater on Saturday for a three-week run at the Loeb Drama Center, sidesteps the issue entirely. Imagine the most heinous plot device — dancers clad in Dust Bowl garb belting a Broadway-ready version of “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps? — and you can exhale in relief.

“In a weird way, the show isn’t a lot of spectacle,” says director Nick Corley, who co-devised “Woody Sez” with David M. Lutken. “Instead of turning Woody and his music into something that’s very musical theater, we’ve turned it into something honest and organic. It’s modern but it’s still authentic.”

The show is true to Guthrie’s vision as a political agitator and spiritual influence on everyone from Bob Dylan to Wilco. In other words, it’s theater, not a hoedown.

“I’m a believer that music is the heartbeat of theater. It’s a personal passion of mine,” says Diane Paulus, artistic director of the ART. “The music in ‘Woody Sez’ is a draw, but there’s also the issue of social history, and I think our audience loves that combination: It’s entertainment, but it also deals with larger issues, which is exactly who Woody Guthrie was.”

Like the man himself, it’s an unvarnished homage to the Oklahoma-born Guthrie and his songs, cast in the broader context of the Great Depression and told in his own words, derived from multiple sources. “Woody Sez” was the name of a syndicated column Guthrie wrote for a communist newspaper from 1939 to 1940; that bastard spelling of “says” was in line with the folksy nature of his writings.

Coinciding with a yearlong centennial celebration of Guthrie’s birth, “Woody Sez” stretches from his childhood to his death, of complications from Huntington’s disease, in 1967. Four actors who also happen to be musicians — Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein — inhabit numerous roles. Lutken stars as Guthrie, and his castmates play a multitude of characters who were important in his life. They swap more than 15 instruments, ranging from guitar and banjo to dulcimer and spoons, and nearly 25 of Guthrie’s songs.

Lutken developed the production in various incarnations, including a children’s show at one point, before it officially became “Woody Sez” and debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007.

“I always thought that Woody Guthrie and his life would make for quite a theatrical show,” says Lutken. “All the other shows I know about Woody are about the history and the music. There are some about him and his life, but none of them is really a biography. That’s the element that Nick and I decided was the most important to add to our show.”

Lutken says he and his team are grateful for the support and cooperation of Guthrie’s estate, particularly Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, who oversees his legacy as cofounder and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

“What’s unique about ‘Woody Sez’ is that it’s based on Woody’s words,” Nora Guthrie says. “It’s not an interpretive piece. Sometimes I get annoyed when people suppose what Woody was like or might have done. ‘Woody Sez’ doesn’t do that. It’s as close to the truth as possible.”

To skeptics who worry the show is too hokey for the ART, Paulus points out it is perfectly suited to one of her greater missions. After some performances, the cast will lead informal hootenannies, in which audience members are encouraged to bring their own instruments to play. Paulus loves that.

“It’s my dream of a theater show — it ends but then the audience continues it,” Paulus says. “It’s my mantra at the ART that we’re here to build community with every show we make, and that includes the audience.” (And what will Paulus be playing at the hootenannies? “A tambourine?” she says meekly.)

This production will reach beyond the theater’s walls into the community, too. On May 17 at 7:30 p.m., the ART will offer a free outdoor simulcast of “Woody Sez” live on the plaza next to the Science Center on the Harvard campus. Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sara Lee Guthrie, will perform at 6:30 p.m. (Tickets are required; information is at www.boxoffice.harvard.edu/online.)

Paulus sees a clear link between Guthrie’s legacy and the vibrant folk revival that took root in 1960s Cambridge, most notably at Club 47 (now Club Passim). She even sees his spirit alive and well in the Occupy Wall Street movement that has rippled around the world.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Paulus says. “I think the idea that we can have our voices heard, which Woody embodied, is something that means a lot to me and speaks to the power of theater.”

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