Sometimes I wonder
Why I spend the lonely nights
Dreaming of a song
Haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
— “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael
Story and Photos by Billy Liggett
You don’t write melodies, Hoagy Carmichael once famously said. You find them.
Over a 30-year span from the late 1920s through the 1950s, Carmichael “found” some of the most recognizable melodies in American music history. “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Heart and Soul” and “The Nearness of You” are four of the most recorded songs of all time. “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” won him an Academy Award (“Ole Buttermilk Sky” was nominated for one). Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson barely scratch the surface when listing the big names who have performed his music.
While Carmichael, the man, is largely forgotten in the pantheon of popular culture today, his music remains timeless. And the Broadway-caliber team behind the musical “Stardust Road” — which made its world premiere at Temple Theatre in October and will end its three-week run in Sanford on Nov. 3 — are hoping “timeless” translates into interest from agencies that can take the show on another type of road.
And should the words “Stardust Road” one day appear on a marquee under the lights on Broadway, it’d be a huge straw in the cap for Temple Theatre. The stage where Broadway shows are born.
It’s the night before the big opening, which means one final dress rehearsal for the cast of seven young actors — four men and three women — and the six-piece jazz band made up of local musicians who are also part of the backdrop and set for “Stardust Road.”
In the audience are director Susan H. Schulman — considered a trailblazer for female directors, she was nominated for a Tony award as Best Director for “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway in 1989 — and her choreographer and longtime professional partner Michael Lichtefeld. Nearby is Peggy Taphorn, the producing artistic director at Temple Theatre for 12 years now who met Schulman back in her college days and would later serve on her stage management team for “Little Women” on Broadway, a show Lichtefeld choreographed.
In all, there’s about 10 people in the theater providing a small smattering of applause after the show’s biggest numbers. The most enthusiastic claps come from an older gentleman wearing a jacket and a ballcap.
“These guys have done it right,” says Hoagy Bix Carmichael, son of the legend himself, named in honor of his father’s friend and biggest musical influence, Bix Beiderbecke — one of the most popular jazz soloists of the 1920s who died at the age of 28 in 1931 of complications from pneumonia. Hoagy Bix Carmichael is a co-producer of the show, and on this night, he loves what he’s seeing.
“It’s all pre-existing music, so it’s not easy to make a story out of it,” Bix says. “But they’ve really done it. It’s just fantastic.”
Asked what his father would think to see his music return to a stage nearly 40 years after his death, Bix waves his hand.
“Oh please,” he says. “He’d go nuts. He’d go absolutely nuts about this. He’d love it.”
“Stardust Road” is all music. The dialogue is in the lyrics, the dancing and the melodies Carmichael found during the height of his career. It tells the story of seven friends over four locations and four decades — all bars or nightclubs set in 1920s Indiana (Hoagy’s home state), 1930s Harlem, a 1940s USO bar and a Hollywood nightclub in the 1950s.
“It’s a show steeped in history,” says Lichtefeld. “It’s some of the most important music from 1920 to 1960 — and it’s a great marriage of music and theater.”
Schulman recalls first being approached to consider directing the show — it all began with a phone call in 2015: “This man on the line says, ‘Susan Schulman, this is Hoagy Carmichael.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, right, and I’m Marie Antoinette.’ But then he explained that he was Hoagy’s son, and that they’d been trying for years to put together a theatrical adventure that features his work. They’d tried concerts, music reviews and biographies, but nothing really worked.”
Schulman was intrigued, but she admitted that she wasn’t familiar with all of Carmichael’s work. So she began to research — listening to his early work and his collaborations with some of the biggest names in the industry.
“I was stunned,” she says. “Half of his famous stuff, I didn’t know he’d written it. His music evolved with every decade, and he worked with so many lyricists that every song had its own texture to it. It was challenging to put it all together, but it was also exciting. We knew this show wasn’t going to be a biography, but a story of those four decades, propelled along by the music.”
The cast of seven is young and diverse. Young because Schulman and Lichtefeld enjoyed the juxtaposition of young people performing “old music” and adding their own spin to it. And diverse because Carmichael was heavily influenced by black musicians in the 1920s and collaborated with many black artists during his career (the 1930s portion of the musical takes place in a Harlem nightclub).
The cast — Markcus Blair, Rachel Fairbanks, Brianna Mooney, Jenny Mollet, Jake Wood, Richard Riaz Yoder and Jordan Barrow — is Broadway caliber. Yoder and Mollet are the only two to have performed on the biggest of stages, but the other five are close. And young. And multi-talented.
And most importantly, a great fit in this show.
“It so rarely happens that you get your first choice for characters in a show like this,” Lichtefeld says. “But we got our first choice for all seven — the characters are so specific in this show … who they are and what their function is. I almost passed out when they all agreed to do this. They’re terrific. They took on 50-some-odd pieces of music and learned it in two weeks — and it’s not easy music. There are difficult harmonies and vocal arrangements.”
The generation gap hasn’t been an issue for the performers, according to Schulman. A few on the cast have said they’re taking these songs with them for future auditions pieces.
“Young people have fallen in love all over again with the Golden Oldies,” she says. “And why not? These songs are beautifully constructed, the lyrics are intelligent, and overall the songs are just evocative.”
It’s about 45 minutes until showtime, and backstage and downstairs, Brianna Mooney and Rachel Fairbanks are in the dressing room they share with Jenny Mollet, doing their own makeup in front of the large mirror surrounded by white light bulbs. They share a laugh about not having the “luxury” of a make-up artist for this show before Mooney reminisces about her previous experience at Temple Theatre (she was Rizzo in Temple’s recent production of “Grease”).
“I was doing ‘Jersey Boys’ on a cruise ship, and that’s when I met [Temple veteran] Hailey Best,” Mooney recalls. “I went to a ‘Grease’ audition with her in New York City, and she later convinced me to send a tape to Peggy. I had no idea where Sanford was, what the town was like or what the theater was like. I just wanted to play Rizzo.”
Mooney’s the only cast member of “Stardust Road” with previous Temple Theatre credits, which made her the go-to for those wanting advice on things to do and places to eat around town. In a short time, the cast has become a tight-knit family — enjoying movie nights or “family dinners” when they’re not rehearsing or performing. That kinship doesn’t always happen, says Mooney, who experienced a similar bond with the “Grease” cast in Sanford last year.
“Honestly, that’s what made me love this place so much — the friends I made in the show,” she says. “The people who surrounded me here became like a second family. And with this cast, I think it’s even closer. It’s just seven of us. You don’t always experience this with your cast — and that’s OK, you don’t always have to get along, as long as you work professionally together. But here, you get both. It’s an amazing cast, and we all really love each other.”
From the opening note, “Stardust Road” is 90 minutes of continuous song and dance. Each character has his or her “moments in the spotlight,” while many of the numbers are group performances.
“You’re shot out of a cannon, and there’s no real break,” says Jordan Barrow, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art whose biggest number in this show is an emotional performance of “Georgia on my Mind” during the third act. “Then again, the show is only 90 minutes, which just gets you to the intermission in most shows.”
The most exciting aspect of “Stardust Road” for this cast — aside from working with Broadway veterans like Schulman and Lichtefeld — is that they’re the first to put their mark on these seven characters.
“Doing new shows has always been a part of my career,” says Barrow, who most recently performed in the world premiere of “America V 2.1” in Massachusetts and the world premieres of “Witness Uganda” and “Sousatzka.” “And compared to those shows, this team’s got the goods. That they’re here and they believe in us to represent this show and want us to show the world what it can be — it’s an honor to be here.”
Fairbanks’ most recent gig was on the first national tour for “Cinderella,” and when she saw Schulman and Litchefeld’s names on an audition appointment set up by her agent, she jumped at the chance to be a part of this show (the two gave Fairbanks her first professional job at the age of 16).
“Being in a premiere is very exciting for all of us, because directors and choreographers usually come in with preconceptions about how they want their people to look or how they want them to perform based on previous actors in these roles,” Fairbanks says. “But we get to be the first. So later on, if this show hits the road and perhaps we’re busy on Broadway … other people will be looking at our performances and basing it all on what we contributed to these roles. It’s really humbling, and again, it’s very exciting.”
“Stardust Road” is a demanding show for the seven performers — but it also highlights their individual talents and strengths. Fairbanks and Yoder share both a tap routine and a ballroom routine, in addition to vocal solos. Blair’s comedic timing, Mollet’s powerful vocals, Wood’s “leading man” persona, Barrow’s smooth delivery and Mooney’s range of emotions — it’s all there.
And it’s all brought out by the music — led by Temple Theatre’ do-it-all marketing director, actor, musician and stage manager Gavan Pamer at piano, the orchestra (which includes local jazz Gregg Gelb on saxophone) performs yeoman’s work for the 90-minute show, which far fewer breaks than the actors get.
This all sounds like the beginning for “Stardust Road,” but that it has made it this far is no small feat. Schulman and Lichtefeld began working with Broadway musical director Larry Yurman on the production back in 2015, and that year, it was scheduled for a run at the small 300-seat St. James Theatre in London before it was canceled due to “financial difficulties.” Hoagy Bix Carmichael said then that he hoped the creative team and actors would continue the journey and try again in London the following year.
That didn’t happen for the cast (or London), though the creative team remained.
They brought the show to the University of Indiana, where students in the theater department there performed a three-show, weekend-long workshop in August of 2018. Schulman and Litchefeld’s connections with Taphorn eventually led the show to Sanford — and that’s where it stands today.
Where “Stardust Road” goes from here is anybody’s guess. Licencing agents have been in the audience for several shows, and audience reviews from the first two weeks have been overwhelmingly positive. The one thing the creative team and cast members can agree on is this show has legs and deserves to branch out to bigger audiences.
“We’d like to see it move forward to another venue,” says Schulman. “If it ends up on Broadway, then yes. Amazing. If it’s off-Broadway, then that’s great, too. We just want it to go forward. We want to see these songs licensed so this show can exist as a musical. We believe in this show, and we want to show it to the world.”
For the actors, this would mean the opportunity to remain in these roles — but nothing is guaranteed. Either a bigger, better role could come along, or future directors or licensing agents might want a different face in a certain role.
Such is show business.
“It would be awesome to continue this journey,” says Mollet. “We all love working with Susan and Michael — they’re just so humble, amazing and sweet. And so caring … it’s been a pleasure to work with them, and I’d love the chance to do it again.”
Perhaps nobody wants to see “Stardust Road” succeed outside of Temple Theatre more than the staff of Temple Theatre.
“This is a big deal for us,” says Taphorn. “This is a huge honor and step in our development as a leading regional theatre.”
It’s not the theatre’s first go at launching a national show. In 2014, Temple had a development deal with a company in New York City and did the world premiere of “Country Gravy and Other Obsessions,” which went on to a national tour after its run in Sanford. The lead producer of that show unexpectedly passed away, and the relationship between the company and Temple ended. Taphorn says “Stardust Road” gives the theatre another chance at being on the ground floor of developing a show that will ultimately be produced at other theaters and eventually Broadway.
“The Temple will always be listed as the premiere theatre at which it was produced, so all subsequent productions will know that it started here in Sanford,” Taphorn says. “That’s really cool. And having a co-producer of Hoagy Bix’s caliber also ups the production values we can afford, as well as the creative team and cast. All of that is reflected in this amazing production.”
“In the theatrical world, this can merit national press,” adds Pamer. “Having the opportunity to be the first theatre to produce this show is a very exciting time. This process is how some Broadway shows have found their legs to move on to a life in New York.”
“Stardust Road” ends its run in Sanford on Nov. 3. Tickets for the final weekend of shows are available at templeshows.com.