Boonville, Missouri is not necessarily where you might expect the world premiere of a new musical to be held, but then not just any town can boast of a beautiful historic theatre like Thespian Hall, built in 1855. Coupled with the town’s location along side one of America’s great rivers, it turns out Boonville is the perfect place to launch Gumbo Bottoms: A Big Muddy Musical written by Meredith Ludwig and Cathy Barton. It also happens to be home to the Turner Hall River Rats for the Arts, the sponsoring organization. Board president Lesley Oswald explains. “This town has a long theatrical history and we are thrilled to be adding to it.”
Gumbo Bottoms was just an idea in the summer of 2005 when Ludwig was collecting oral histories for Missouri River Communities Network. She met Fred Oerly, born in 1922, who could remember when his dad took him to the river to watch a house in the Overton Bottoms cave into the water.
Lottie Klein knew what it was like to walk through gumbo. Born in the bottoms, she grew up with the blackish goop between her toes and watching it pile up on the wagon wheels. Lucy Coleman was raised on Wilson Island in the middle of the river. Her family farmed the land with a black family. While racism was rampant elsewhere, Coleman declared, “We needed each other.” Ludwig said, “I was hearing such great stories and I was so taken with river culture that I figured it was high time somebody write this river a musical.”
Not long after she began working out the plotline she heard Cathy Barton and Dave Para perform at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia. “Cathy sat down to the piano and played several of her own compositions and I knew I had found my composer.” The two began collaborating that August. “I was on the road a lot with Dave and The Discovery String Band that year so Meredith would e-mail me lyric ideas and I would work on songs whenever I could,” said Barton. Ludwig enjoyed the process. “It was great fun when she would get home for a few days and I’d get to come hear what she’d been working on.”
The script went through several readings before being put on its feet in a low budget workshop production at Turner Hall with Lesley Oswald as Vivian, Lou Thompson as Lucy, Damen Jones as Gabe, Tom Burns in the role of Jacques Jeanrue, Ed Scrivner as Gus and Tim Nadeau as the attorney. The band consisted of Cathy and Dave, Violet Vonder Haar on guitar and vocals, Sam Beide on bass and Amy Toomsen on fiddle. Watch the slideshow video of the November 2006 workshop production by Jeronimo Nisa here.
“It got such a wonderful response,” said Barton. “And everybody kept asking, 'When are you going to do it again?'” Ludwig revised the script based on what she gleaned from the production. “It’s so important to see it on the stage before you share it with the world. You learn so much about the plot, the characters and from the feedback you get from your audience,” said Ludwig.
Set in 1928, Gumbo Bottoms is the story of Vivian Marks, a wealthy easterner, who discovers her fortune has been squandered when her husband dies suddenly. All she has left is a piece of bottomland in Missouri. “You mean “Misery”, Vivian sings in the opening song. Things go from bad to worse when she travels to Missouri only to discover her rich bottomland has been taken by the “Wiley Guiley Mighty Mo,” another of the 12 new songs by Ludwig and Barton.
The story continues as big city wealth clashes with rural river life and basic survival crosses the racial divide. With song and dance, laughter and drama the 90 minute musical delivers a tribute to river life, rich, deep, inspired by stories from the region.
If your community is interested in bringing the production of Gumbo Bottoms to a theatre near you in 2009, please contact Turner Hall River Rats at 660-882-3300 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.