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Nashvillians introduce Broadway to the Civil War

By Lisa A. DuBois

APRIL 19, 1999:  With their jackets pulled tight against the frigid New York wind, Mike Eldred and Gene Miller hustle down West 44th Street to the St. James Theatre. Miller's life-size sepiatone image glares at the traffic from the outside walls of the building. Inside, Eldred's name is etched into a small red X on the stage of the luxuriantly renovated theater.

To paraphrase composer Frank Wildhorn, this really is the moment. These two Nashvillians have grabbed the golden ring--not only making it to Broadway, but originating roles in the world premiere of Wildhorn's newest musical showpiece, The Civil War. Given that Eldred has had limited professional musical theater experience, and Miller has had none, they have defied the odds. Both men are unlikely survivors in the dance of celebrities, agents, palm-greasing, and cutthroat deals that cleave many a path to the Great White Way. Instead, their voices--high, sweet, octave-popping tenors--have carried them out of auditions and into the hearts of composer Wildhorn and vocal/casting director Dave Clemmons.

"Gene and Mike are quintessentially what the project's all about," says Clemmons, who also has a part in the show. "The music is very organic to them. They sense it and they feel it and they're very passionate about the way they approach it. And it's the way Frank loves singers to sing." Having grown up in Murfreesboro, the casting director shares this innate appreciation for the music, born as it is out of a certain sense of place.

With Wildhorn arising, the three Middle Tennesseans are wise to hitch onto the songmaker's comet. A prolific A-list writer of such pop tunes as "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" Wildhorn is currently under the hypnotic spell of musical theater. When Civil War officially opens on Apr. 22, he will become the first composer in over 20 years to have three Broadway shows running simultaneously--including Jekyll & Hyde at the Plymouth Theatre and The Scarlet Pimpernel at the Minskoff.

"I feel like I'm part of something really big," Eldred says. On the evening of opening previews in March, the casts from all three current musicals promenaded down Broadway in full costume, gathered at the St. James Theatre, and paid a musical tribute to the ubiquitous composer.

Actually, several Nashvillians are now building a name on New York's hallowed boards. Country singer Pam Tillis is having a successful turn in the Lieber and Stoller revue Smokey Joe's Cafe, and Tom Wopat is starring opposite Bernadette Peters in a reprisal of Annie Get Your Gun. But unknowns Eldred and Miller are the true Cinderella stories. They are entering this project wide-eyed and thrilled, but also a little homesick for the redbuds and azaleas they'll miss seeing this spring.

Miller's involvement in the show dates back three years. Living in Los Angeles and working as a backup and session singer, he was given several of Wildhorn's Civil War songs to perform for a demo. A short time later, Miller and his family moved back to his home state of Tennessee, where his newly formed band Shiloh signed a record deal with Mercury Nashville. When Shiloh's singles went nowhere and the group disbanded, Miller acquiesced to Wildhorn's repeated pleas to appear in Civil War, which was being workshopped and produced at Houston's Alley Theatre.

"It's been an amazing adventure ever since," says Miller, who hadn't performed in musical theater since he was a teenager studying under McGavock High School's notorious drama teacher, Kent Cathcart.

Eldred took a more traditional track to the St. James stage after being hired from Nashville auditions. Civil War is actually Eldred's second Broadway stint, following an appearance in the limited-run revival of Jesus Christ Superstar several seasons ago. He is known to local audiences for his leading roles in Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Tapestry and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Like Miller, Eldred entered live theater as a vocalist. A rising contemporary Christian music artist, he refocused his career about five years ago when he decided to try musicals. He had only one problem: He was terrified of acting. So he approached Nashville's famed acting coach Ruth Sweet (who died last summer), and she ultimately linked him up with instructor Jill Massie.

"I'd love to talk to Ruth and tell her [how far I've come]," Eldred says, his eyes welling with tears. "It was amazing how she encouraged me and believed in me. Honest to God, I would not be here today if it weren't for her."

Appearing on Broadway is momentous enough, but both Miller and Eldred say they're also inspired by the rare beauty of the songs in Civil War. "I'd sung bazillions of demos for people, but when I sang 'Virginia' I got choked up," Miller recalls. "For one thing, we were getting ready to move back to Tennessee and I was very emotional about that. I'd lived in Los Angeles for 12 years, and there was something about this man's heartcry for his home...that really touched me."

Structurally, Civil War is different from most contemporary musicals, which either jump between dialogue and music or are through-sung in the style of opera. This piece moves like a musical narrative among members of three groups--Confederates and Southern sympathizers, Union Army soldiers and families, and slaves--all ordinary, all overtaken by the bloody juggernaut of war. Though rooted in the folk and gospel traditions of 19th-century America, the ballads pulse with Wildhorn's signature pop and R&B tempos.

Lyrically, however, Civil War stands unique in Wildhorn's musical theater canon. Jekyll and Hyde, in particular, has been criticized for pitching song lyrics that have little to do with the storyline. But in Civil War, lyricist Jack Murphy's main inspiration came from actual accounts by people involved in the conflict. The ballad "Tell My Father," for example, emerged after a research trip to the Maryland Historical Society.

"Here was this trove of 1,400 letters that were all written on the same day, and all written before the same battle," Clemmons explains. "The commanders used to make the boys write home before they went into battle, knowing some wouldn't make it.

"So they found this one letter, and the opening line was: 'Dear Mother, today I die. Tell my father I died with my face towards the enemy.' 'Tell My Father' is born out of that material. Jack Murphy has done a brilliant job of making these people breathe."

Ultimately, it will fall on the shoulders of the cast--of Miller, Eldred, and Clemmons, among others--to make the Civil War breathe again. In a week, audiences and critics will cast a discerning eye toward three Southern men who will sing the story of a century-old tragedy that still haunts them to the core. And they will sing that story from the most prized location on the planet.

Oh, sweet Tennessee, look at your boys now.

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