From Playwrights Horizons to Broadway: A History of the Musical Violet
By Robert Simonson
Playbill.com offers a look at the history of the musical Violet, which opens on Broadway April 20.
Violet, the musical by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Brian Crawley, took a long time transferring from Off-Broadway to Broadway, where it will open at the American Airlines Theatre April 20. Seventeen years, to be exact.
Violet was initially developed at the O'Neill Theater Center during the 1994 National Music Theatre Conference. The creators adapted it from ''The Ugliest Pilgrim,'' the most widely known short story by Doris Betts, a North Carolina author of novels and stories. (Betts passed away in 2012.)
The show received its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons March 11, 1997, starring a young Lauren Ward as a disfigured southern girl who takes a road trip through the South of 1964 to visit an evangelist (played by Robert Westenberg) in hopes of being healed and thereafter leading a normal life. Along the way, she meets two soldiers — played by Michael Park and Michael McElroy — and unexpectedly finds love and her true self.
Susan L. Schulman was the director and Kathleen Marshall — yet to find fame as a director in her own right — was choreographer.
Violet was the first big New York show for Tesori, who would go on to write Thoroughly Modern Millie, which won a 2002 Tony Award at Best Musical; Caroline, or Change, which transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway; Shrek, which played Broadway in 2009; and Fun Home, which was critically acclaimed at the Public Theater in 2013. (Violet remains the best-known credit of Brian Crawley.)
The show did fairly well, critically, receiving nominations for a 1997 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical, and it won Lortel and Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Musical. Additionally, Tesori received a special citation from the Obies. An original cast recording was released in 1998.
Despite all those accolades, the show did not transfer to a commercial run, Off-Broadway or on. It went on to have several regional productions, but, in the years following its run, was little discussed or remembered in New York circles. The underwhelming 1997 review by the New York Times probably didn’t help. “Still, for theatergoers attending this sweet-tempered, high-reaching show at Playwrights Horizons about a disfigured woman's quest for beauty, a suspicion may arise early that Violet isn't quite as different as her creators intend her to be,” wrote the paper at the time. “Nor, for that matter, is the musical itself.”
When it was announced in early 2013 that Tesori would be the first artistic director for Encores! Off-Center, a new concert-production series celebrating Off-Broadway musicals, Violet was part of the inaugural season (along with the Depression-era Marc Blitztein political musical The Cradle Will Rock and the 1970’s folk-rock musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road).
Leigh Silverman directed the new staging, which received a one-night only concert presentation July 13, 2013 and received good reviews. “Violet was ahead of its time in examining the national obsession with physical beauty and transformation expressed in makeovers and cosmetic surgery,” wrote the New York Times. “As Ms. Tesori has demonstrated in shows like Caroline, or Change, set in the South in the same period, she has an ear acutely attuned to American roots music. At the same time, she is an eloquent melodist. Violet arrived around the same time as the Adam Guettel-Tina Landau show Floyd Collins, set in Kentucky in the 1920s. Because both powerful scores forsook traditional razzle-dazzle to explore rural vernacular styles, they were underappreciated in their time.”
Soon after, it was announced that Violet would, at long last, go to Broadway. It didn’t hurt the show’s fortunes that the new production has one of Broadway’s few certified musical theatre stars in the lead: Sutton Foster, who has won Tony Awards for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes and has been nominated for Shrek the Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone and Little Women. The soldiers this time are played by Colin Donnell and Joshua Henry. Ben Davis played the preacher, and Alexander Gemignani is Violet’s father.
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