It’s a week before the first preview of “Troubadour” and the creative energy is ricocheting inside the Alliance Theatre.
In one room, Radney Foster and Zach Seabaugh look over two pages of script changes with director Susan V. Booth.
Down the hall, Kristian Bush – he of Sugarland fame and the composer for the country-themed musical – sits at a small white table with actress Sylvie Davidson. He closes his eyes and tucks his chin to his chest as Davidson's angelic voice croons the song "Silver Willows."
“Perfect,” he says with a slight smile as her sweet voice tapers off.
Downstairs, playwright Janece Shaffer sits in a corner armchair with her laptop, surrounded by pieces of paper as she continues to tweak the script amid a parade of people entering and exiting the office.
This swirl of activity will soon coalesce onto one rotating stage when “Troubadour” opens Jan. 25 at the Alliance, where it will run through Feb. 12.
Shaffer's sixth Alliance premiere is set in1950s-era Nashville. Legendary country singer Billy Mason (played by stately country stalwart Foster) is preparing to retire. His son Joe (Atlantan Seabaugh, a former contestant on "The Voice") wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but dad isn't too happy about relinquishing the spotlight to his son, whom he thinks lacks talent.
When Joe meets hopeful singer-songwriter Inez (Davidson) and Russian tailor Izzy (Andrew Benator), an immigrant who wants to make garish country music outfits, he begins to find his true self on his musical path.
The larger picture is about “meeting those people who can help you become (someone) you can’t even imagine for yourself yet,” said Shaffer. “There’s a line in the play: ‘Sometimes people who have been knowing us our whole lives don’t know us at all.’ I believe in meeting the right people at the right time, and it feels like the people (involved in “Troubadour”) are the right people at the right time.”
Shaffer got the idea for the musical during a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as she perused the rhinestone and glitter-encrusted costumes of '50s-era country music stars. She contacted Bush, the songwriter whose hits with Sugarland include "Baby Girl," "All I Want to Do" and "Want To," as well as "Trailer Hitch" and "Light Me Up" from his solo career. He immediately said yes, and his brother Brandon came on as musical director.
Despite having played stadiums and won Grammy Awards, Bush said writing 16 songs for “Troubadour” has been a life-altering experience.
“In music, many times the music happens before you realize what the story is,” he said. “In this creative exchange, the story happened before the music, and that allows for a different tool that you use when you make the song. You don’t use a sledgehammer. You get closer to using a chisel and a toothbrush.”
Bush spent a few days in New York recently, absorbing as many musicals as possible (“The Color Purple” and “Falsettos” among them) for “due diligence.” He found himself attuned to “the moment when I lost my attention, when I drifted. When am I yawning? When am I thinking about popcorn? The most important piece of when you make stuff is to be a fan of watching stuff.”
“Troubadour” is the fourth time Booth, artistic director for the Alliance Theatre, has worked with Shaffer, of whom she is a big fan.
“It’s a gift to produce a story like this that has such a wealth of open doors and windows for people to walk through,” said Booth.
And she’s excited about the cast, which parallels reality in many ways.
“Radney has had an incredibly successful 30-year career in Nashville – being our King of Country Music is in his DNA,” Booth said. “And Zach is an 18-year-old rising star, still trying to figure out where he wants his career to go.”
The show’s musical performances all take place in environments that are organic to the story — during a concert, a radio show appearance – and not, as happens in many musicals, while popping out to buy coffee or mopping a floor.
“The story is as true as the songs are – that’s what makes this thing feel like it’s bigger than us,” said Bush. “Country music without authenticity isn’t country music.”
Through Feb. 12. $20-$72. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404.733.5000, www.alliancetheatre.org .
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