In a world where theatrical productions are often based on books and movies, it’s rare to find a musical on the Great White Way that doesn’t have a tie to an existing property.
It’s just as rare to find a show that doesn’t fit the standard bill of Broadway-style music. But that’s exactly what audiences will get when Alluvion Stage Company’s production of “Bright Star” opens this Friday.
“It just has that feeling of the Blue Ridge,” said Linda Nell Cooper, artistic director of Alluvion.
The musical — written by the Grammy-winning team of Edie Brickell, frontwoman of the New Bohemians, and Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) — was inspired by the legend of the Iron Mountain Baby.
In August of 1902, William Helms, a Missouri farmer, discovered an infant near a riverbank under a railroad trestle that crossed over Big River. The baby, which Helms found inside a telescope suitcase, was believed to have been thrown from a passenger train on the nearby Iron Mountain Railroad line.
“From appearances it had been the intention of the person who had endeavored to get rid of the baby to throw it into the river,” a correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in a front page story on Aug. 17, 1902. “But the speed of the train had caught him or her unprepared when the bridge was reached.”
According to a 2013 retrospective article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Helms and his wife kept the child, who became known as the Iron Mountain Baby.
The child’s story became the stuff of legend and, more than a century later, inspired a song on Martin and Brickell’s 2013 collaborative album “Love Has Come for You.”
That song became the inspiration for “Bright Star.”
Jumping between the 1920s and the 1940s, the folk musical follows Alice Murphy, a literary editor in Asheville, North Carolina, as she forges a connection with an aspiring writer that inspires her to confront her past and uncover a terrible secret.
“It’s got all those qualities [that make a good musical] like spirits and secrets and Southern traditions,” said Cooper.
Despite premiering on Broadway in 2016 among a packed field of heavyweights that included “Waitress” and the juggernaut “Hamilton,” Martin and Brickell’s musical received five Tony Award nominations and a Grammy nod.
It also featured two songs from Martin and Brickell’s 2013 album, which earned the pair a Grammy for the record’s title track.
Most of the story in “Bright Star” is told through song, said Kathryn Wert, the production’s music director and orchestra conductor.
And, like the album that started it all, the songs in the musical are written in the Appalachian style commonly heard in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“It’s more along the lines of what you might have expected from The Carters back in the day, early Dolly Parton, when she was really young, [and] Loretta Lynn,” Cooper said.
Music is such an integral part of “Bright Star” that the production’s orchestra — in this case, a six-piece bluegrass band that includes a banjo and mandolin — is actually onstage, interacting with the cast.
“The cast sings a lot of background oohs and ahhs to fill out holes that the band” has in its instrumentation, said Wert. “... They function kind of in tandem, playing off of each other moreso in this show than I’ve seen before.”
Just as the cast transforms into a seventh instrument in the band, the musicians actively participate in “Bright Star’s” storytelling.
The players create some of the show’s sound effects, including the whistling of trains, the cries of animals and even the clunking of hammers on wood, which creates a distinct sense of place, said Cooper.
“It has an organic feel to it, instead of a technological [one],” she said.
This use of instrumentation has put the band “more onstage than we’ve been in any other show,” Wert said, adding, “The neatest thing is how the music serves the story and how the story is told so well through it.”