I’m probably best known for the musical PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES, a Broadway hit in 1982-83 that ran for 577 shows and continued across the country and around the world.
It was a modest little show by Broadway standards, six actor-musicians, a unit set of gas station and diner. I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, but all of the creative team (John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Cass Morgan, Debra Monk, John Schimmel, co-authors) made major contributions with songs, dialogue, and staging. We began as a band and our decisions to this day have all been by consensus.
PUMP BOYS was the first show ever written and performed by actor-musicians on Broadway, and our producing partners were the Dodgers, also their first Broadway outing. The Tony nomination for Best Musical put us over the top, as have the many productions from small towns to big cities over the years. That level of success was completely unthought of in the beginning, when we were just looking to work, play someone’s party, be an opening act.
I started as a folkie in high school (McCallie, Chattanooga) and college (UNC) and after graduation I helped found a music club, Cat’s Cradle, which is still going strong in Chapel Hill. The Cradle nurtured many fine bands during the ‘70’s and two of them, Southern States Fidelity Choir and Red Clay Ramblers, joined forces for DIAMOND STUDS: The Life Of Jesse James, A Saloon Musical. The term “actor-musician” had not been coined but that’s what we were, although NY Times theater critic Clive Barnes wrote, “They act horrifically but play like angels auditioning for Gabriel”. Elsewhere he wrote,
“Yes! Yes! A Thousand Times Yes!” — New York Times
STUDS was an overnight hit off-Broadway in 1975 and we got more professional as we went along, thanks chiefly to John Haber’s direction and Patricia Birch’s choreography. Doing so many shows in one place, I understood I was better suited to this scruffy kind of theater, storytelling with music, than the life of a touring musician. So I kept at it, learning through flops and near misses, New York winters, temping, scuffling.
Fortunately, PUMP BOYS broke through and I started working on a new idea about the North Carolina coast with my STUDS co-author and piano man Bland Simpson. We wrote songs and gathered stories, traveled to coastal towns, listened to folks tell of hurricanes, comic fishing disasters, getting a car stuck in the sand, romance, dancing the Shag. At some point we snagged up Don Dixon to complete our trio. This became KING MACKEREL & THE BLUES ARE RUNNING: Songs And Stories Of The Carolina Coast.
“A pure salt-watered delight!”–NY Daily News.
KING MACK is a gift that keeps on giving, for the enduring friendships between the three Coastal Cohorts and for the ongoing opportunity to write and perform in partnership with environmental and arts nonprofits. So, apart from most musicals, we’ve kept going like a band, recording new songs, playing live, 37 years on.
The Big Three
DIAMOND STUDS, PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES, KING MACKEREL; those are the big three from my early career, lived mostly in New York. By the late ‘80’s, I was in Chapel Hill raising my son Jesse, then I moved back to New York when Jesse landed at NYU. While arranging a concert at the Laurie Beechman, I met the lovely, savvy lady who was Managing Director of the theater, Patricia Miller. The Dodgers signed on to an extended booking of KING MACK and I signed on to an extended booking with Patricia. Jesse got his degree and became a New Yorker, married Lucy Boyle from Manhattan and settled in Brooklyn with their daughter, our granddaughter (!) Eloise Jane.
The People vs. Mona
In 2000 a small-cast musical I wrote with Patricia and Ernie Chambers, THE PEOPLE VS. MONA, debuted at the Pasadena Playhouse (Director, Paul Lazarus; Music Director, Pete Snell) which spawned other versions around the country while Patricia and I kept revising. In 2007 Ground Up Productions, Kate Middleton, Director, presented MONA in New York, to sold-out houses and great reviews. I enjoyed the challenge of crafting our “Musical Mystery Screwball Comedy”. We always had wonderful casts and productions and broke some box office records in professional and community theaters where it was done in that decade.
The Great Unknown
THE GREAT UNKNOWN, a musical about Civil War vets from both North and South going down the Colorado River in 1868 in search of the “Big Canyon” (The Powell Expedition), debuted at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2010 with book by Bill Hauptman (BIG RIVER), music by me, direction by Don Stephenson with choreography by Liza Gennaro, and produced by Patricia.
“Nobody can write genuinely exciting theatrical music in a country vein better than Wann.” –Broadway historian and critic Peter Filichia
But without a commercial producer to augment the budget for a regional theater tryout, THE GREAT UNKNOWN stalled, and that was my first lesson in today’s big-dollar Broadway-style theater.
Johnny Mercer & More
Meanwhile, I was commissioned to write a song cycle for string quartet and baritone by Carolina Chamber Music Festival, Ron Raines, soloist. For an American Theatre Wing gala at the Plaza Hotel Ballroom I performed my song, “Mr. Broadway”, a tribute to honoree Hal Prince. I recorded “Pardon My Southern Accent”, an album of Johnny Mercer songs, in a church (Don Dixon, producer; Mark Williams, engineer), and played a number of Mercer gigs, including at Town Hall in New York and for the 100th anniversary of Johnny’s birth in Savannah in 2009. I was host of a PBS Series, Farmer’s Almanac TV.
My co-authors and I were consultants for a production of PUMP BOYS at City Center in NY (Off-Center Encores) directed by Lear deBessonet, for which a couple of thousand people stood and cheered on opening night. We reunited for a concert version at 54 Below in NY in 2018, performing together for the first time since 1982 (with Bob Stillman sitting in for the late Mark Hardwick) and enjoyed a wonderful reception from theater friends in sold-out houses.
Dixon, Simpson and I did a twenty-fifth anniversary tour of KING MACKEREL across North Carolina with songs from our new recording, “Wild Ponies” now in the show. I was honored by the NYC Carolina Club (UNC) for Outstanding Contribution To The Arts, the John L. Haber award. The American Traditions Vocal Competition in Savannah asked me to be a Judge, twice, and then a member of the board. Patricia joined the board of the Tybee Post Theater.
Playwriting From a Novel
Out of the blue I got an email from fellow Tennessean Vince Vawter, who had written a Young Adult novel (Newbery Honor Book) called PAPERBOY and wanted to send it to me. A mutual friend had said it should be a musical and I was the guy to contact. Vince’s novel is set in 1959 in Memphis and told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old boy who stutters, takes over his friend’s paper route that summer, has to meet new people and face challenges trying to speak and find his place in the world. His adult mentor, with her own rivers to cross, is black. It’s pretty much Vince’s own story and I identified. I was an eleven-year-old in 1959 too, in Chattanooga at the other end of the state from Memphis but in the same Jim Crow latitude.
It’s been five years since Vince and I began sketching out PAPERBOY, A New Musical, and along the way we’ve picked up collaborators for the book, Emily Loesser and Don Stephenson, and for the music, David Shenton. Our first production will be March 2023 at Manhattan School Of Music with an all-student cast and orchestra.
At this stage of life, friendships are more important than ever. As I’ve said of my Coastal Cohorts, “In the beginning music made the friendships and now the friendships make the music”. And as Don Dixon says, “Make every day count”.