Your NPR news source
MIDNIGHT-06XX24-6.jpg

The Goodman Theatre’s new musical adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil required an award-winning creative team helmed by (from left) composer Jason Robert Brown, choreographer Tanya Birl-Torres, director Rob Ashford and book writer Taylor Mac.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

For ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ the path to Chicago stage is paved with creative risks

The musical, directed by Rob Ashford and set in sultry queer Savannah subcultures, promises to be a summer theatrical blockbuster. But the approach is far from traditional.

The key to a successful musical adaptation goes deeper than the selection of the source material.

Turning John Berendt’s Southern Gothic novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil into a captivating theatrical experience required an award-winning creative team assembled by a native Southerner, director Rob Ashford, and the backing by a trio of Broadway producers.

It took Ashford 10 years to bring Midnight to the stage. When the production opens at the Goodman Theatre in previews on June 25, the summer blockbuster musical aims to recreate the culturally rich and eccentric world of historic Savannah, Ga., where the true crime novel unfolds.

MIDNIGHT-06XX24-14.jpg

It took director Rob Ashford a decade to bring Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to the stage.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

“It just feels like a melange of a lot of different people and things and histories all just kind of living together in a great sexy harmony somehow,” said Ashford, who grew up in West Virginia and attended college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “That’s what it felt like to me. So I thought about how exciting it would be to try to bring that to the stage.”

Sitting outside of the theater at the Goodman during the first week of tech rehearsal, Ashford said he was always attracted to the Southern Gothic charm of the novel. It follows the story of Jim Williams, an antiques dealer on trial for murder of a male prostitute. A New York Times best seller, the book was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey in 1997.

midnight in the garden.png

It took three decades for the 1994 true-crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to get a stage adaptation.

Courtesy of Random House

But Ashford couldn’t stage the story alone. To summon Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery for a stage in Chicago – and possibly future stages in New York – he tapped a gifted musical director, Jason Robert Brown, whom he’d worked with on the Tony-award winning Parade on its London run. To write the story for the stage, Ashford recruited MacArthur Fellow and Tony-nominated playwright Taylor Mac. For the choreographer, he hired up-and-comer Tanya Birl-Torres, whom he’d known for 15 years. (The production is backed by Broadway producers Hal Luftig, Craig Haffner and Sherry Wright.)

Ashford charged each member of the creative team with bringing a unique flavor to the project, with the overarching theme of being comfortable with your true and unique self. “We are really pushing as far to the edges of what a musical can do as I’ve ever seen,” said Brown, whose list of Tony accolades also includes the Broadway hit The Bridges of Madison County. “I find it very exciting.”

6.jpg

Actors from New York and Chicago make up a large cast of 26 performers.

Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre

During the recent tech rehearsal, the theater is alive. The cast of 26 performers — which Ashford says is a 50/50 split of New York and Chicago actors — wear early versions of costumes. Lush Spanish moss dominates the stage. Ashford speaks on the “God-mic,” which allows for his voice to be heard throughout the theater, and he gives direction on movements for the opening number “Bonaventure,” which is set in the cemetery. Each character is singing about what they love about Savannah.

This moment illustrates the creative approach to the production. As the song goes on, Ashford hears one of the actors voice concerns about bumping into a castmate. Ashford asks choreographer, Tanya Birl-Torres, for a suggestion on solving the issue. He then checks with the orchestrator to make sure the movements will fit with the music. It’s a team effort.

The creative team began the process of building this production with a series of research trips to Savannah to get a real feel for the community where the story takes place. For Ashford, what he learned on these trips was the pulse of the town.

“Our [set] designer Christopher Oram, who is a collaborator of mine for many shows over many years, was the first person I asked to be a part of this,” Ashford said. “He was really excited about all the different colored bricks and the way that bricks were used in Savannah, and the Spanish moss.”

MIDNIGHT-06XX24-10.jpg

Tanya Birl-Torres said trips to study the culture and history of Savannah informed her approach to the dance design for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Birl-Torres, who also served as cultural consultant and intimacy coordinator in addition to choreographer, said the research trip introduced her to the cultural history of the town. She admires the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, who like her, are creative Black women. As they would, Birl-Torres approached the project as an anthropologist, studying people when building characters.

In Savannah, Birl-Torres learned the town’s history as a slave port, and about its connections to Gullah Geechee culture, as well as its Voodoo and Hoodoo practices and the roots of Christianity in the Black church.

But she was particularly struck by the cemeteries. The huge mausoleums and monuments to power and prestige caught her eye, yet she found inspiration in the finer details. “Our tour guide told us that the little tiny gravestones that are around [the monuments] that mark the pathways of every grave, were built by the slaves who were there,” she said. “When you come and see the show, that is in my choreography. Those pathways. I wanted to honor that.”

MIDNIGHT-06XX24-18.jpg

Jason Robert Brown subverted the idea that a large scale musical piece should have a certain stylistic coherence throughout in Midnight.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Perhaps the most important part of any musical is the music. And Brown leaned into the idea of the uniqueness of the different characters in the story when creating the score. From Savannah, the creative process next took members of the team to New York — and Brown’s piano.

“We were working on a gospel, blues number,” said Birl-Torres. “And it’s telling the story of a young Black girl coming into her womanhood.” Brown had no personal connection to such an experience, so he asked her to describe it. Then, based on her description, Brown was able to play her emotions, in a feat Birl-Torres described as “magical.” She created the choreography from there.

“One of the main points of the novel is that there are all of these subcultures coexisting — some of which never interact with each other at all,” said Brown. “But part of what makes Savannah, Savannah, is the existence of all of these shadow societies, all with their own rules. So, my intention musically, was to honor that.”

Brown did so by allowing different characters to have their own sounds. He deliberately subverted the idea that a large scale musical piece should have a certain stylistic coherence throughout. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, assigning each subculture in Savannah a particular music genre.

Jim Williams, the antiques dealer who is born working class, gets a musical vernacular of Broadway and pop composer Johnny Mercer — who is actually from Savannah and has familial ties to the story. Williams’ lover in the story, Danny Hansford, has a sound that is a Lynyrd Skynyrd-type of Southern noisy guitar rock. For the high class, old money Savannah society characters, Brown went for a comic opera sound.

1.jpg

In the world premiere stage adaptation, a central character is Lady Chablis, played by Tony- and Grammy-winner J. Harrison Ghee.

Courtesy of Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre

But the musical really centers around a trans woman and drag performer named Lady Chablis, portrayed in the world premiere by Tony and Grammy-award winner J. Harrison Ghee. To bring Lady Chablis to the stage, Brown developed her songs with an early ‘80s rhythm and blues sound.

“I’ve got all of those noises happening all the time,” said Brown. “And that’s sort of the joy of the show. Just letting each of those languages be complete in and of themselves.”

For book writer Taylor Mac, who brought his own unique flavor to the production, the decision to focus on Lady Chablis came from his own experience reading the novel in 1994. He recalled being amazed at how a book with a queer story at its core could captivate American audiences.

“The Lady Chablis kind of stole the book for me,” Mac said. “So, I wanted to tell that story. The story of somebody who is considered an outsider in a world of outsiders.”

MIDNIGHT-06XX24-4.jpg

Taylor Mac wrote the stage version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Mac’s book eventually places the Lady Chablis at its heart, but his method of doing so is not traditional. The story starts with Jim Williams, and the murder, but then shifts protagonists, an atypical structure, Mac said.

“Usually, you have your protagonist and you go with them. And you know who [the protagonist] is through the whole musical, and you end with them having accomplished something,” Mac said via Zoom. “But with this story, it felt like Chablis needed to become our protagonist, rather than start off in that position.”

Similar to how the creative team provided stylistic surprises, the story itself contains more than what meets the eye.

“It is a whodunnit but it is deeper than that,” said Ashford. “I think it’s a real study of the class system in our world and in our country that we don’t focus on a lot. And the pressure to try to fit into that structure, and the people who care less about it and just want to survive, have a good time and become something other than what they’re expected to be.”

The musical runs through Aug. 4 at the Goodman.

If you go: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil the Musical opens June 25 in previews and runs through August 4 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets from $30.


Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

Want more culture news in your inbox every week? Subscribe to Green Room, a newsletter from WBEZ’s Arts & Culture desk.

The Latest
De La Soul brought their signature energy, Chicago’s Kara Jackson brought the prose and more reviews from Union Park.
The 20th anniversary show comes as the rapper-actor is eyeing an EGOT and releasing an album featuring a duet with girlfriend Jennifer Hudson.
Art
Experiencing a new augmented reality art installation in the park requires a mobile phone — and extra patience.
Whether you’re headed to Pitchfork or just craving new music, this playlist will introduce something fresh into your rotation.
The Oak Park-raised poet and folk singer on her hometown return, musical influences and the best local tacos.