Robert L. Hecker’s Honestly Abe is a musical about Abraham Lincoln’s youth, and is being staged now in New York theaters. Mike Strozier, the director of the play, shares his thoughts about Honestly Abe with Ernest Dempsey.
Ernest: Mike, first I’d like to ask what is it in Lincoln’s character that fascinates you, because you also have written and directed a play on his character previously?
Mike: My interest is largely because I am a playwright first. The show I wrote, The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln, is a play, though it does have songs in it, they are famous, ancient songs that I didn’t write. Robert L. Hecker’s show, Honestly Abe, is a full-fledged musical with 30 tracks, wonderfully written songs, and a historically accurate story. When writing a major play or musical, a playwright requires a major subject.
I had grown up in Springfield, Illinois, and my father is a Lincoln scholar so I had literally grown up with Abraham Lincoln. We visited every single site related toLincolnand I heard every story because my father was working on this or that book aboutLincolnor he was restoringLincolnsites that had been forgotten, like the Lincoln Law Offices. Added to that was all of the typical information that a school child inSpringfieldreceives about Abraham Lincoln. As one example, as a boy scout, I walked the same 25 mile route thatLincolnwalked to get toSpringfield, that’s the route with the iconic image ofLincolnreading a book while walking. I realized I knew Abraham Lincoln like few others did.
My play was successful and very well-liked. I had published one of Robert’s books and he sent me his script. Having produced my own show, I felt confident to put on another show about Abraham Lincoln. I realized that there have been very few shows or movies about Lincoln, even though there are many books about him. Honestly Abe is the first one about his youth. And my show was the first about the last year ofLincoln’s life. Subsequent to my show, there have been books about this period too, even movies. Lincoln’s character fascinates all Americans; yet he is largely ignored. La Muse Venale, my theater company, is therefore at the forefront of a very important show that I feel will become standard at schools and community theaters nationally.
Ernest: So tell us a little about what Honestly Abe shows on stage about Lincoln?
Mike: Robert L. Hecker’s show is a historically accurate portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood. There is a large ensemble of 14 characters taken directly from history. And Robert delves into the relationships of these characters and what they faced in life. The story follows the arc ofLincoln’s youth to when he enters into law and from there he would go on to politics. And we’ve just finished a cast album that is going to be sold nationally. The music greatly adds to the show, even in terms of the staying true to that era of the early 1800s. The choreography of Ashley Wren Collins is incredible and it too works in tandem with that time period.
Ernest: Who plays Lincoln’s character in Honestly Abe and how did you select him for this role?
Mike: Abe Lincoln is played by Jeff Kline, Torrey Wigfield, and Ryan Turner. The actors have done much research for their roles and they fully bring the character to the stage. All of the cast members are highly successful in portraying their characters. I held auditions inNew York, and there is always an abundance of extremely talented actors inNew York. This is a non-Union show, one of very few that is Off-Broadway.
Ernest: This play is a musical. Was it in some ways challenging to do a musical on Lincoln?
Mike: Musicals are incredibly complex and very hard to direct and produce. They are much harder than other plays. Lincoln is strangely enigmatic in America and that would make it that much harder, yes. And it’s partly the confidence that I had aboutLincoln that gave me the courage to tackle this subject and show. But once I started, I soon realized that I was doing something of major significance. The show has grown and there are many complex parts to it. And this is something of an experiment, to produce a non-Union musical Off-Broadway. It’s just not done this way in New York Theater, so I am defying the norms. It has been very educational for that reason alone.
Ernest: How do you compare the appeal of your play showing Lincoln’s end of life against Honestly Abe which shows his youth. What appeals you more, speaking impartially, as a director and admirer of theater?
Mike: I find both parts of Lincoln’s life interesting. And Honestly Abe is a large musical, whereas my show was a play. I gain a lot of valuable experience in producing a musical like this. And directing is not easy. I think the only way you learn how to be a director is to actually do it; schooling does little to make you a capable director. And normally, directors leave on opening night and are never seen again, partly so they can go on to the next show. But I have been working on this show continuously, and we’ve had quite a few new cast members come along. And we have keep working on this show; it’s hardly what it was when it debuted.
Ernest: How long has Honestly Abe been staged now and what audience has it attracted most?
Mike: We are in our 5th month now. That is a major accomplishment for a show inNew York. We are bringing in school groups as well as average theater-goers.
Ernest: Do you think Honestly Abe exhausts Lincoln’s character for you?
Mike: Yes, because Honestly Abe is a wonderful and accurate portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood and youth. And the show has romance, action, and drama. I feel that this show will reach many schools nationally and become standard fare for schools.
Ernest: Before saying bye, how is your press doing and what have been some of its more noteworthy recent books?
Mike: My press is doing well, as always. The big book I just published is The Longest War by John Holmes, a collection of stories from the recent wars told by veterans. It’s selling very well and we have the chance to reach national distribution for the first time.
Ernest: Thank you Mike for taking time for this round of a chat about art.
Learn more about Mike Strozier’s publishing work at the World Audience Publishers.