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The Ballad of Little Jo

Written by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger
Directed by Tina Landau

September 14 through November 5, 2000.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Box office: (312) 335-1650

David New and Judy Kuhn star in Ballad of Little Jo
Photo: M. Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO, its 25th anniversary season opener, is rich and strange. This production has an impressive artistic pedigree. The play is based upon the true story of Josephine Monaghan, an enigmatic 19th century woman from a genteel Boston family who lived in disguise as a man, Little Jo, in an Idaho town until her death in 1903. Maggie Greenwald wrote and directed a critically acclaimed film about Little Jo in 1993. Four years ago, Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger began to compose their musical of this story. Tina Landau, who wrote and directed her own musical, Floyd Collins, to considerable praise, directs THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO, Steppenwolf's first musical production.

Despite the play's artistic pedigree, there is something paradoxical about this production. Tina Landau, finding herself in the role of teacher during the production, was constantly asked about the techniques of the musical genre. (Brian Scott Lipton, "Musical Overtures," Stagebill, September 2000, p. 34.) My own musings about THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO are variants of that same oft-asked question: "When you do a musical, do you do it like this?" I think the answer is a resounding "yes!" The Steppenwolf production is a fabulous, sure mounting of this musical. "When you do a serious musical do you base it upon a true story, cum motion picture, that deals with such profound subjects as sexism, racism, identity and community?" I think not. Even though the dramatic subject matter of THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO is quintessential Steppenwolf, the production is finally more musical than drama. I left this musical "humming the tunes rather than pondering on the story." (Clive Barnes, "Introduction to Fiddler on the Roof," 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1970, p. 465.)

Act One of the Steppenwolf production is Little Jo's story in flashback. In Boston, in 1883, Josephine's father explains to her teenage son Lawrence why his recently deceased Aunt Kate adopted him and raised him as her own. Lawrence knows Kate is not his mother because he has discovered Josephine's letters to her sister. As grandfather James Monaghan relates the background story to his grandson, the story is dramatized. Lawrence is the illegitimate son of the free-spirited Josephine and a duplicitous married photographer. On Kate's wedding day, Josephine boards a train to San Francisco; she intends to reclaim her son after she builds a new life. She is victimized on her journey westward: her ticket and her money are stolen, she is put off of the train in Idaho; she is rescued by an old pedlar; and she is kidnaped and serially raped by two ex-soldiers. When she escapes from them, she retreats to a general store and dons the clothing of a man, cuts her hair, and scars her face. Josephine becomes Little Jo, a young man who arrives at a mining camp in Silver City, works an abandoned claim, and discovers silver. Little Jo is befriended by Jordan, a miner, and Sarah, a storekeeper. The three form a curious triangle—Little Jo is attracted to the virile Jordan; Sarah is attracted to the gentle Little Jo. While she is working her claim, she receives letters from Kate and meets her in Boise. Kate tells her that she has adopted Lawrence. Act One ends with the marriage of Jordan and Sarah.

In Act Two, Lawrence goes westward to find his mother. The past thirteen years in Idaho are presented through the various town celebrations. The settlement hewn from the silver mine slowly crumbles. The prosperity that begins the act in 1870, as exemplified by the success of the General Store that Little Jo and Jordan own, becomes bad times in 1883 when the mine is threatening to close and longer hours and less pay is the norm. The miners blame their ill-fortune on Tin Man, a Chinese man who stayed in the town after his family was killed. The mob injures him. Sarah asks Little Jo to take him to her home. When they are alone in her home, Tin Man reveals that he knows Little Jo is a woman. They fall in love. In the end, the mob destroys the store, Jordan, Little Jo and Tin Man. Sarah prepares to leave Silver City after she tells Lawrence about his mother's life in Idaho.

The musical is based upon the film; the film is based upon the legend; the legend is based upon very few historical facts: in a community near Silver City, Idaho a Josephine Monaghan died as a recluse and as a man; in her possession were letters from her sister in Buffalo, New York that mention an infant son who was left behind when Josephine traveled westward. Maggie Greenwald's film adds a montage of Josephine's disgrace and banishment, the motivation for Josephine's cross-dressing, a chronicle of her reclusive life in the Old West where it was illegal to dress improper to one's sex, and a source of happiness for Little Jo in her love affair with Tin Man, a Chinese railroad worker she rescues from hanging at the hands of a drunken mob. The film is an atmospheric Western with a feminine "hero." "The Ballad of Little Jo" is "a gritty view of America's nineteenth-century frontier." (James Berardinelli, "Ballad of Little Jo," Colossus.net, 1993.) "Writer and director, Maggie Greenwald, wisely avoids an old-fashioned plot, and concerns herself more with the daily texture of life in the West." (Roger Ebert, "The Ballad of Little Jo," Chicago Sun-Times, September 10, 1993.) Maggie Greenwald's film is "a richly amusing and satisfying movie that is attractive not because it inverts the conventions of the [Western] genre but because it also honors them." (Stephen Hunter, "Ballad of Little Jo," Film Critic, 1993.) "Maggie Greenwald has taken an even more obscure story, about a cross-dressing ranch hand named Josephine Monaghan, and turned it into a wry, rugged, unexpectedly gripping little Western . . . . [Comparing it to the film A 1000 Pieces of Gold, the true story of a Chinese immigrant woman who homesteaded in Idaho] Lalu and Josephine each narrowly escape a life of sexual exploitation, they use their ingenuity to outwit male predators and establish themselves as wage-earners, and each finds happiness with a man of another race. (John Teegarden, "On Her Toes," Film.com. 1993..) "Screenwriter and director Maggie Greenwald clearly cares about what women's lives were like on the prairie . . . 'The Ballad of Little Jo' is a film that seems to take pains to be historically accurate, it is feminist through and through. . . . (Linda Lopez McAlister, "'The Ballad of Little Jo', A Film Review," The Women's Show WMNF-FM (88.5), Tampa, FL, November 13, 1993.)

Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger wanted to write a serious musical that was neither depressing nor a "period piece." (Brian Scott Lipton, "Musical Overtures," p. 35.) Nevertheless, their ballad is darker than the film version. The narrative is more dramatic and intense. Josephine is not a hapless victim who is seduced by the photographer, she is free-spirited and open in her love. She is not abandoned by her family; she is to be relocated and provided for in San Francisco. She arrives in Idaho because of a series of misfortunes—her money is stolen, she is kidnaped and raped. Josephine more than dons men's clothes to transform herself from the genteel Bostonian—she cuts her hair and scars her face. The writers add the triangle with Jordan and Sarah. Tin Man is no stranger; he is omnipresent in the community —first as a child, then as a scapegoat because of his race, and finally as a lover. Most importantly, the Little Jo of the musical is not a recluse. As a co-proprietor of the General Store, which is right in the middle of the town, she is a pillar of the society, an icon of success.

To emphasize the dramatic structure, the musical plot of THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO is presented in traditional literary ballad form. "[A] Ballad [is a] short narrative folk song that fixes on the most dramatic part of a story, moving to its conclusion by means of dialogue and a series of incidents. [B]allads tend to have a tight dramatic structure that sometimes omits all preliminary material, all exposition and description, even all motivation, to focus on the climactic scene." ("Ballad," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000.) In THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO the most dramatic parts of the story are the two scenes of identity change: the transformation of Josephine to Little Jo in Act One and the transformation back to Josephine in Act Two. Incidents antecedent to these pivotal moments are presented with little dialogue and development. So, in Act One, the relationships between Josephine and her father, her sister, and the adulterous photographer are presented in Brechtian scenes that are presentational rather than dramatic and involving. In Act Two, the events of the years from 1870 to 1883 that lead to the union of Josephine and Tin Man are similarly presented in an epic theatre style. The direction and pacing of these scenes is quite masterful.

Unlike the film, the musical is not a period piece. Of course, the historical roles of women in the West as working wives or prostitutes is important to the background story, and there is an overlay of the historical phenomenon of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act driving the narrative about the demise of the silver mine and the enmity toward Tin Man. Yet, the audience knows the historical context, but experiences something more timeless. This dramatic sleight of hand is achieved by the stage setting of the musical, which is romanticized and less rooted in a specific time and place. In the beginning, the Bostonian society is presented as a red velvet curtain that opens and falls away to reveal a minimalist railroad platform and train. The scenery becomes more representational throughout the rest of the musical. The Idaho silver mine is omnipresent as a background to all of the other settings—the General Store, Little Jo's home, the mining camp, the town square. Even though the set, with its rough hewn grey rocks and weathered wood, is realistic—it does not evoke the specific time or place of the 19th century American West. When the cyclorama is lit as the night sky and the actors are silhouetted either in tableaux or in action, the effect is elemental and awesome.

Indeed, Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger have successfully crafted a serious drama from the historical and cinematic sources. Their ballad does have the potential to speak to audiences "about contemporary themes, such as the nature of friendship, how community breaks down, and how men and women relate to each other, . . . about identity, in not facing the truth of who you are and the impact of that on other people." (Sarah Schlesinger, quoted in "Musical Overtures, Stagebill, p. 35.) But the musical conventions obscure these themes.

Mike Reid's Copland-esque music perfectly evokes the boundless atmosphere of the serious musical. The eight piece orchestra, in the pit in front of the stage, blends seamlessly with the action on the stage—the volume is right, the pacing is right. If you do a musical, this is how an orchestra should sound. Sarah Schlesinger affirms that the lyrics for THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO are "the most organic score [she has] ever written." ("Musical Overtures," p. 35.)

I would agree. The lyrics are an integral part of this production. They are designed to carry the narrative forward; in their poetry they blend with Mike Reid's music to give the production its aura of elemental timelessness. Many of the songs are simply wondrous. The company songs especially convey the themes of community and friendship: "Far From Home," "Independence," "Hi-Lo-Hi," "All Around Us." These songs are performed with consummate showmanship. The songs for the main characters—Sarah, Jordan, Tin Man and Little Jo—are stirring and insightful and musically beautiful. Jessica Boevers [Sara], David New [Jordan], and Jose Llana [Tin Man] deliver their songs with urgency and earnestness and a purity of tone that is dazzling. Judy Kuhn, Little Jo, is a fantastic singer. In her pivotal scenes of transformation, to Little Jo ["Everything that Touched Her"], and to become Josephine ["Unbuttoning the Buttons"], she is mesmerizing.

Therein lies the irony. When Ms. Kuhn delivers Little Jo's songs, the audience is entranced by her voice and the poetry of the lyric and the melody of the music. The audience does not ponder the issues of identity and self-awareness. Ms. Kuhn's portrayal does not focus attention on these issues either: she does not attempt to lower the timbre of her voice or to swagger in her masculine clothes and scarred face. Her voice and movement are unfettered by her portrayal of the character.

The paradox of THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO is that if Josephine Monaghan's story were told by Steppenwolf, without music, the audience might very well leave the show acknowledging the "plea for acceptance for all sorts of people who are considered outsiders." Tina Landau, quoted in "Musical Overtures," p. 35. However, Little Jo's story is told by Steppenwolf in its musical debut. Ultimately, this very fine musical production eclipses the dramatic story.

Sandra Marie Lee

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. http://www.steppenwolf.org
Through November 5:
Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 PM;
Saturdays-Sundays, 3 and 7:30 PM;
Wednesday, October 25 and November 1, 2 and 7:30 PM;
Sunday, October 29 and November 5, 3 PM only.
Note: "Lone Rangers: Art by Outsider Artists," a free visual art exhibit organized by Anatomically Correct to complement the production, is on display at the theater through November 5; for more information, call 312-514-1802.

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