Saturday, May 7, 2016

Eden On The River (musical)

Not your daughter's Aaron Burr.
This week the Tony Award nominations were announced, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton received an unprecedented sixteen nominations, including a record seven nominations for individual performances from a single production.

The man himself received a nod for Best Performance by an Actor for a Lead Role in a Musical for the eponymous character, but so did his co-star Leslie Odom Jr. for the inimitable role of Aaron Burr. Historical precedent notwithstanding, I am sure their conflict will be handled with grace and mutual celebration.

Prior to its introduction at the Public Theatre a year ago, the average American who knew anything about Alexander Hamilton probably knew two things; he was the first Secretary of the Treasury and that he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr. Most probably only knew that second part.

Miranda’s decision to make Aaron Burr the near-omniscient narrator of this production was brilliant, echoing the use of Judas Iscariot as the audience’s confidente and co-conspirator in Jesus Christ Superstar. By the end of the evening, it is as though we know more about the mercurial Burr than we do the fallen angel Hamilton.

The playwright is far too kind to his antagonist, however, depicting a Burr who in the moment of his greatest error expressing instant regret and immediately reflecting upon his haunted future. The historical Aaron Burr returned across the Hudson after mortally wounding his foe, had a good meal and received appointed visitors without once mentioning what he’d just done.

As performed by Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton’s Burr is not only sympathetic, but attractive with a voice attributable to the heavens. And the historical Burr lived, and his remaining years were adventurous. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works, even now, a musical about the wilderness years of former Vice President Aaron Burr.

Only it’s already been done.

Blennerhassett Mansion
Over forty years ago, John H. Lee of Parkersburg, WV wrote a one-act play called Conclave, which was later expanded in 1974 into a three-hour musical called Eden of the River, in collaboration with Joyce Ancrile and Genevieve Greene (lyrics and music, respectively.) The subject was primarily the personages of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, Irish immigrants of some personal fortune who spent their way west until settling at the very edge of European civilization on the island which now bears their name. Blennerhassett Island sits in the Ohio River between present day Parkersburg and Marietta, Ohio.

They had built a charming little mansion and began a farm and entertained dignitaries from far and wide and were by all reports very delightful hosts whose ability to burn through cash was rivaled by their failure in agriculture. An unremarkable American story. Except for the arrival of one very special guest..

Aaron Burr, sir.

The plan was to raise men and funds and head south to drive Spain out of Mexico. The question was whether he intended to join war with Spain when declared by Jefferson, or if he was planning to raise his own army for the purpose of seizing Mexico for himself. Harman Blennerhassett was persuaded to invest in the great man’s venture, and for his troubles was eventually imprisoned and his lands confiscated for for joining what was branded a conspiracy.

Blennerhassett was almost ruined. Burr was acquitted, spent some time in Europe, and returned to New York City to quietly practice law, dying at the age of 80.

The Aaron Burr of Eden of the River is a seductive populist, as comfortable throwing back moonshine with western Virginian settlers as he is receiving Blennerhassett guests like the young Senator Henry Clay; the script includes reference to many historical figures who actually visited Blennerhassett Island. In fact, one of the supporting players is Burr’s eldest daughter, dear Theodosia.

Program, 1989.
The most salacious plot point in the play is the suggestion that in attempting to seduce Harman, Burr also made a play for this wife, Margaret. One, single cabin survives from the Blennerhassett era and someone once found the initials “AB+MB” scratched into the warped, almost two century old glass, giving rise to a legend of extra-marital behavior.

Of course, absolutely anyone could have made that inscription over the years.

Eden On The River was modeled after other outdoor historical dramas like Trumpet In The Land and Tecumseh! However, where the production lacked horses and flaming arrows, it did feature live, wandering peacocks and the quaintly majestic backdrop of a reconstructed Blennerhassett Mansion.

Yes, for four summers 1987-1990, Eden was presented on the isle where it happened. I was a member of the chorus (and also Henry Clay, who has one line) for the second and third seasons. The first two years the production able to use the mansion itself as “backstage.” It was still in the process of construction, the floors were bare and the walls naked sheetrock.

Apparently some company members were less than professional with the space, and by the third season we were relegated to a number of air conditioned trailers behind the building. 1989 was a very wet summer, the mosquitoes were rampant but most preferred to sit outdoors rather than in the trailers, which were rendered funky and inhabitable almost immediately.

I was bitten so many times I developed an allergic reaction creating rash from my right knee all the way up to my crotch, for which I required antibiotics. You’re welcome.

Why was this outdoor musical mothballed after four years, why is Eden not celebrating its thirtieth season on the river this summer? Once upon a time I would have suggested it was because it’s not very good, but upon further reflection and enjoying a twenty-six year old VHS cassette, I have come to the conclusion that that is simply not the case. It’s no Hamilton, but what is? There are several songs which are much better than I had recalled, and it does have high, historical spirit.

It is a bit too long. Originally staged for the island by Ohio University professor Bob Winters, Bob judiciously cut the three-and-one-half hour long event down to a much more manageable two and a half hours, but after two seasons (my first) he was through with the production, and the next season it was re-staged by John Lee … who promptly restored several songs adding at least another half-hour.

And as I said, it didn’t have any fights or exotic animals or any Christian themes or racist native American stereotypes, elements which appear to be necessary for the perpetuation of a destination outdoor musical. Just some attractive turn of the nineteenth century, lots of young dancers from the local colleges, and starring some fine, classically trained voices; veterans from opera companies in Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York City, and beyond. Perhaps folks just want their outdoor drama less genteel, more rugged, and with fewer mosquitoes.

1 comment:

  1. I was in Eden on the River during the 1989 season. Thanks for the memories!