Published July 03. 2014 4:00AM
The Spirit of Broadway Theater is staging the debut production of "Benedict Arnold: The Musical" - a piece that is the Norwich theater's first commission.
In late 2012, Spirit of Broadway hired a trio of respected writers - Richard Vetere, Jeffrey Lodin and William Squier - to create a work about Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor and Norwich native.
Last fall, Spirit of Broadway did readings of "Benedict Arnold: The Musical" in front of audiences. Now, it's time for the official world premiere: the fully staged piece is playing at the venue through Aug. 3.
Crowds who saw the staged readings in 2013 should expect a fresh experience in 2014. Not only is the cast mostly new, but the script and songs have been reworked.
The writers attended most of those Norwich readings. Brett Bernardini, Spirit of Broadway's founding artistic director, says, "Really great writers know how to edit their own work, and the only way to edit your work is to get a different perspective on it. The minute somebody else (performs) your work, you kind of sit there as a writer and think, 'Did I write that? That's not what I really meant to say.'"
The creators took their notes from the read-throughs and communicated with Bernardini via email and phone calls about changes. They had come up with their own list of elements they wanted to hone and focus. They found that some things worked much better than they had anticipated - and that some things, well, as Bernardini recalls the words of the book writer, "I don't know what the hell I was thinking!"
"The end result of that has been a sharpening of the story ... and there are several new songs in the show, and two songs have been rewritten," Bernardini says. "The composer didn't like the tone of two of the songs. Without going into technical details, he basically took the funky rhythms out of one of them and just straightened them out. It makes way more sense."
A little about the show's creators:
Composer Lodin and lyricist Squier's "Rebels" was Spirit of Broadway's highest-grossing new musical. Book writer Richard Vertere has a long list of credits, including writing the Pulitzer-nominated play "One Shot, One Kill" and the novel "The Third Miracle," which he adapted for a film starring Ed Harris and Anne Heche. He also adapted the play "The Marriage Fool" into a CBS movie starring Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett.
"Benedict Arnold: The Musical" explores who Arnold was as a man - beyond the turncoat deeds he is infamous for. Squier thought that Arnold could be America's Macbeth, and that's how the script sees him. The story also delves into the impact Arnold's second wife, Peggy, might have had on his decisions. (Her parents were British loyalists who believed America was losing the war.)
"Benedict Arnold: The Musical" deals, too, with the relationship between Arnold and George Washington. In one scene, Washington summons Arnold to his Valley Forge camp. He's about to hand Arnold his West Point assignment, which Arnold takes as an insult, since West Point was little more than an outpost in the wilderness at the time.
"Benedict comes unhinged and kind of loses his brains, as is the temperamental, pedantic behavior of an egotist," Bernardini says. "Washington remains cool and calm."
The scene isn't just about Arnold's going berserk but about Washington's being one of Arnold's few defenders. Washington once wrote that he loved Arnold like a son.
So, in Act Two, when Washington finds out he's been betrayed, "it makes that sting even sharper," Bernardini says.
Spirit of Broadway Theater, 24b Chestnut St., Norwich; through Aug. 3; 7 p.m. Wed. and Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun..; $32; (860) 886-2378.
Benedict Arnold Week Events
In addition to "Benedict Arnold: The Musical," Norwich is hosting a series of events for Benedict Arnold Week.
• Benedict Arnold Walking Trail Tours, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, and 10-11:30 a.m. July 11, Leffingwell House Museum, 348 Washington St., Norwich; walk in the footsteps of Benedict Arnold and learn about his youth in Norwich; after the walk, tours of the museum are offered for $5.
• Author presentation, "Benedict Arnold: The Traitor Within," 5-6:30 p.m. July 10, Leffingwell House Museum, 348 Washington St., Norwich; author David C. King discusses his insight on Norwich's infamous son; suggested donation $3; leffingwellhousemuseum.org.
• "Key to Liberty" Exhibit, through Aug. 29, Slater Memorial Museum Atrium, 108 Crescent St., Norwich; historical images, maps, and eyewitness accounts of the 1776 Battle of Valcour; the exhibit explores the role of Arnold, "an American enigma," and also reveals the fate of the historic shipwrecks on Lake Champlain; free; slatermuseum.org
• "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor," noon July 11, Otis Library Community Room; viewing of the 2003 A&E movie; free.