Lincoln Attorney’s Civil War Musical Returns Tonight at Haymarket Theatre 2/11/16 02/11/16 2:22:19 PM
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Thanks to James Harris’ ancestor, we can hear a first-hand account of the Civil War as depicted in the attorney’s musical.
Lincoln Attorney’s Civil War Musical
Returns Tonight at Haymarket Theatre
By Dennis Friend
The Daily Record
You could describe Jim Harris as a Lincoln trial attorney who wrote a play. Or, you could call him a playwright with a thriving law practice. He received his law degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1980 and handles workers’ compensation and personal injury cases through his firm, Harris Law Offices.
But he’s been interested in musical theater since his high school days in McCook. He estimates he has appeared in “close to 40 musicals” as an actor and singer.
Now, he can add “playwright” to his list of accomplishments. He is the writer behind “Civil War Voices” – a musical he wrote based initially on a diary written by his great-great-uncle. Joseph Harris was a man from Alabama who had conflicted feelings about the war, and he watched and wrote down what he saw as well as his thoughts and feelings as it raged around him.
“It was a forgotten document,” in the Harris family history, but James Harris found the story still had the ability to move people.
“The Civil War still touches America. Robert Penn Warren calls it a ‘felt history,’” Harris said. He began giving talks, sharing the thoughts and words of Joseph Harris during speaking engagements.
Harris decided the story would make “a potentially moving musical if combined with other true stories of the war, showing different points of view. I think I started work on this in March of 2007. It hit me that if I could get more true stories, it could be compelling.” However, although it had occurred to him that others from the era might have kept journals and letters, he found out “the harder part was to find the other stories.”
Harris eventually found those documents, letters and stories, and his finished work interweaves the true accounts of five people who lived through the Civil War. They include a Texas couple, a Union Army captain, a freed slave and Harris’ great-great-uncle.
“The Texas couple wrote to each other,” Harris said, while the Union officer is Joshua L. Chamberlain, maybe the most well known of the production’s characters.
The fifth character, that of Elizabeth Keckley, became part of the production after Harris found her story in a New York museum’s shop.
“Her stories were most compelling,” Harris said. Keckley was born a slave in Virginia and “horribly abused” before buying her freedom. She eventually became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s friend.
As Harris crafted the play, he began working with Rob McKercher, someone he described as “a director, a friend, a Civil War buff and very encouraging.”
Harris also enlisted the aid of Mark Hayes.
“That was the key thing. Hayes is an internationally known composer and arranger. He’s a respected interpreter of traditional music,” Harris said. Hayes was able to “weave together period music expressing [the characters’] feelings.”
Hayes’ arrangements include “Amazing Grace,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.”
Hayes has said in earlier interviews that Harris’ decision to use true stories of ordinary people is what drew him to the project, telling one newspaper he read the letters and “sensed a lot of heartache and pride.”
Harris tells prospective viewers not to worry about “Civil War Voices” being a history lesson. “It’s entertaining,” he said, yet it’s also possible to learn something from the production while being entertained.
McKercher directed the first production of “Civil War Voices” at Doane College in Crete in 2008, where he was a theater professor. He directed a second production the following year in Lincoln at the Lied Center for Performing Arts as part of the city’s annual celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Since then, it has been performed in 14 states, won six awards at the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York City and has undergone a number of changes.
“Someone told me musicals are not written, they’re rewritten,” Harris joked, adding that his musical is no different. There have been three revisions – “one major” – from the first production in 2008 to the official publication of the script three years ago.
Now, “Civil War Voices” returns to Lincoln this year for the city’s Abraham Lincoln Birthday Celebration, starting tonight.
Eight performances at the Haymarket Theatre, 803 Q St., will begin at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11-13 and Feb. 18-20, and there will be Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 and 21.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, and are available at: www.haymarkettheatre.org.
The public may attend a free pre-show birthday party (for Abe Lincoln) opening night, tonight, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., featuring free cake, historical exhibits and music by Chris Sayre. While the party is free, you do need a ticket for the musical.
More information is available on the city website at lincoln.ne.gov or by calling 402-441-7831. More information on the musical is available at: www.civilwarvoices.com.