COLUMBIA — In 1971, “The Grass Harp” was a flop. In its Broadway debut, it closed after only seven performances. That has not stopped Jim Miller.
The musical, based on a novella by author Truman Capote, who also penned “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” is an unlikely source for a musical. However, composer Claibe Richardson and playwright Kenward Elmslie have developed something of a cult following since the musical's debut.
What: The Grass Harp
When: 8 p.m., Through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Admission: Tickets are $14 for general public, $12 for university faculty and staff, $10 for students and seniors
Where: The Rhynsburger Theatre, 122 Fine Arts Building, at the corner of Hitt Street and University Avenue
Wednesday marked the opening night for the MU theater department's production of this little-known musical piece and its premiere in Missouri. Miller, a theater professor at MU, not only chose what he readily admits to be “a flop,” but he also directed, choreographed and designed costumes.
Miller has found that Columbia’s audiences are more receptive to intellectual works that might not do well in other parts of the country, even Broadway. His other successful failures included Sondheim's “Assassins" and “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Hello Again” and “Parade,” which he considers the best piece he has ever directed.
"They were all, if not critical failures, they didn’t last long,” Miller said. “They were the best shows I’ve done here, and they’ve had the best reaction.”
A musical written at a time when anti-Vietnam and anti-conformist values were a part of the culture, “The Grass Harp” embraces the themes of love and the acceptance of differences. The musical is about two sisters, Verena and Dolly, who are raising their adopted nephew, Collin. An argument arises about the selling of Dolly’s homemade elixir and ends with Dolly, Collin and their lifelong companion, Catherine, leaving to live in a tree house.
Last Wednesday, Miller felt confident in his cast in spite of the play's unfortunate track record.
“It’s a chance to see something by a well-known author," Miller said. "There have been nights where I’ve gone home and thought we can’t do this, we can’t master this material. But last night I went home, and I was just on cloud nine.”
Cast member and co-choreographer, Alexandra Milner, was profiled last July by the Columbia Missourian. As Verena, a sympathetic villain, Milner is performing one of the most difficult roles of her acting career.
“She’s the villain essentially, but she doesn’t know she’s the villain,” she said.
Verena believes she is doing what is best, Milner said.
“That’s what’s so tough," she said. "Playing this cold, just uptight woman, but at the end of the night everyone has to love her.”
During the play, Milner has a powerful monologue, which she describes as a “nervous breakdown.” A spoken monologue is unusual in a musical, and Verena’s can be challenging.
Capote’s prose adds another layer of difficulty according to both Miller and Milner. Miller compares it to the heightened language of Shakespeare or even the Bible.
“The thing with Shakespeare and any kind of heightened language is that it has to be accessible, and that is such a huge challenge because you can make Capote’s language sound so out there and just go right over people’s heads,” Milner said.