Grab that pink feathered boa and place your best tiara atop your head, Houston, because it’s time to crown a new queen, a Sweet Potato Queen that is.
The world premiere of The Sweet Potato Queens, the musical loosely based on the best-selling books, ascends its rightful throne at the Hobby Center Friday night. TUTS Underground brings this story to the stage for the first time, and while many people have contributed to the beginning of its musical reign, the behind-the-scenes tale of its creation really begins when '80s pop queen Melissa Manchester met the words of queenly author Jill Conner Browne, the original tuberous root vegetable monarch.
I recently got all the royal dish from Manchester after she arrived in town to attend this musical coronation.
Musical Meetings Fit for a Queen
The bestselling Sweet Potato Queens books by Browne hold an array of comic essays, self-esteem building advice and even recipes. And when other people read the series, they might gain a bit of down-home wisdom, life lessons, and experience some great stories. But when Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated songwriter and performer Melissa Manchester read the life stories from Browne she began to hear music. That music wasn’t a specific kind or type, but instead the way Browne expressed herself in her books resonated so much that the words, in a way, sang to Manchester.
“At the end of every essay it would almost be a set up of the hard won wisdom that she [Browne] learned. It had a very musical implication to it,” Manchester described. “Writing funny is hard enough, but when you’re reading someone of high intelligence who’s using their wit and humor as armor against the barbs and land mines of life, that really captured me. Everything that I would read from her had that one two punch. Funny, funny, funny and here’s the lesson. It had its own kind of meter and unfoldment. That’s what writing music does.”
For Manchester, that musical quality of the prose was an indication her soul was being stirred by what she was reading. The book inspired her so much that soon Manchester, who wrote the music for the off-Broadway '90s musical I Sent a Letter to My Love and contributed to soundtracks for many movies, began to think that the Sweet Potato Queen stories could be the bases of a musical. She called her collaborator, songwriter and “southern woman,” Sharon Vaughn and later approached Tony Award winning musical creator Rupert Holmes to write the book. The Sweet Potato Queens musical was coming together when happenstance helped TUTS become attendant to her royal sweet potato majesty.
Manchester was in Houston a few years ago for a benefit and her volunteer driver taking her to media events just happened to be a TUTS board member. When told that TUTS was a theater organization with a mission to cultivate new musicals her response was, “Funny you should mention that.” This fateful drive soon led to a conversation with TUTS president John C. Breckenridge and things happened pretty quickly, especially after TUTS artistic director, Bruce Lumpkin, was sent the script and score.
Her Royal Subjects Unite
A reading of the play was soon set up for March 2015 with a rather surprising result. Even the most ardent theater lovers aren’t usually excited by a read-through of a work-in-progress musical, which usually entails actors on a bare stage, holding scripts, and accompanied by only a few instruments, in this case one piano. But the Sweet Potato crew and TUTS perhaps underestimated the level of queenly devotion fans still have for the books.
“They were only expecting about 30 people a night and over 200 people showed every night. It was really thrilling,” described Manchester.
So what is it about the Sweet Potato Queens phenomenon that brought so many Houstonians to a no frills nor sequins workshop reading of musical still in development? Manchester thinks it goes back to the central message of the books that they wanted to maintain within the musical.
“What’s interesting about the show is the universality about it. It’s not a Southern musical. It’s Southern in its location and some of its attitudes, but the specific issues that she addresses are so universal and that’s why her appeal is all over the world,” believes Manchester.
“Beneath all the feathers and sequins and bravado is a very grounded philosophy to love your friends, and to love your children and your parents, but also the thing we forget as adults is the power of lightheartedness and play that allow us to endure a lot of hardship.”
Manchester is quite thankful for that workshop experience with TUTS because it taught the creative team much about their own musical. Those fans who attended the reading will now not only see a full expanded production but they’ll also hear a few new songs and meet a whole new character, a second Jill.
“We realized that to convey the spirit of Jill Conner Browne we had to have her played by two actresses, a younger version and a more mature version to really clarify her tone of voice. If you have one actress play her, you can’t tell her if her cheekiness is crankiness or cheekiness. Jill has created this tone of voice for her character of Queen Jill that is inspired by the way she really is, but it’s blown up to create this character that supports philosophy.”
Now Houstonians will be the first in the world to hear the music of that philosophy.
TUTS Underground's Sweet Potato Queens runs at the Hobby Center through March 27.