"So kiss me, and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go."
- ("I'm Leaving on a) Jet Plane,"
by Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., aka John Denver
Henry wakes Annie to say goodbye. He's off to war. To Afghanistan. So their wedding plans are on hold until his tour is up.
Michael Sample, lanky and handsome in his ripped jeans and decidedly unregimented hair, embraces Kiley McDonald, straining to reach his lips even in her platform shoes. She kisses him just as Sample's tender high tenor brings him to the "so kiss me and smile for me" lyric. Tricky, that one. Kissing and smiling at the same time. Director Stewart F. Lane praises the pair's efforts. They're rehearsing one of the big numbers in a musical based on the songs of John Denver, "A Moment in Time," which makes its world premiere Friday at the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center.
Lane, a four-time Tony-winning producer ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Will Rogers Follies," "La Cage aux Folles," "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only"), acquired access to the John Denver songbook three years ago, but wasn't sure what to do with it. "I didn't like the revue ," he said of the 2005 Off-Broadway show, the title of which is a maudlin allusion to Denver's death. (His solo plane fell out of the sky in 1997.)
The battle plan
Lane wanted to write an original book to fit selected songs - in the jukebox manner of "Mamma Mia!" Except it wouldn't be comic. Denver's songs are too folky and, yes, sentimental for that.
"Then, it occurred to me," says Lane, seated in a rehearsal studio at Five Towns College. "When was the last time I saw a play on Broadway supporting American soldiers? There've been countless antiwar shows. Not to wave the flag or anything. . . . "
He came up with a story set in the present, but shaped by Denver's songs and early life.
The young man off to war is Henry, his father is John. The girl he wants to marry - they're engaged - is Annie. Denver's first wife was the namesake for his hit "Annie's Song." Denver, like Henry, was an Air Force brat. So when Henry is floundering in college, he enlists. "My country needs me," he tells Annie.
In the opening scene, Henry and his company have just landed in Afghanistan. Already they're being bombarded by artillery. After a concussive blast, Henry finds himself somewhere else. Somewhere familiar.
When we hear the opening notes to "Take Me Home, Country Roads," we don't need to guess where. Henry's a West Virginia boy, recalling happier days, camping with his dad, meeting Annie for the first time, falling in love. The serial flashbacks are accompanied by a John Denver greatest hits tour - "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulder," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" - but also more obscure numbers that fit the narrative, such as "I Want to Live." In a war zone, it takes on an urgent poignancy.
The 'Plane' truth
"Jet Plane" - which Denver wrote when he was still the unknown Deutschendorf - was regarded by fans of Peter, Paul and Mary, who turned it into a No. 1 hit, as a soldier's goodbye to his lover. "If that's how people choose to interpret it, so be it," Denver once told an interviewer.
"I didn't want to just slap his songs on something," Lane says. "I chose songs that advance the story and characters in context."
Lane brought his concept to Five Towns College with the intention of showcasing it to potential co-producers and investors for a Broadway run. "There are a lot of advantages in doing it here," Lane said of Five Towns and its 500-seat Dix Hills Performing Arts Center. "It's a great opportunity. I get a full-blown production close to New York. This could be a workshop venue for other projects," he added, comparing the Dix Hills space to Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where several Broadway shows have cut their teeth.
It's also an opportunity for Five Towns students - young actors who play supporting roles and a crew that gets to work with pros backstage. "Plus our Long Island audience gets to see a brand new show," added Jared Hershkowitz, who chairs the college's theater division.
The cast includes Marie Danvers of Islip, who played Christine in "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway, and 11-year-old Alexander Greenwald of Bellmore. Many of the youngest actors had only recently become familiar with Denver's songs. Some primarily knew of him as the butt of jokes in such movies as "Dumb and Dumber" and "Super Troopers." Others had seen him opposite the late George Burns in the 1977 movie "Oh, God!"
But only one admitted to downloading a Denver song to her iPod before being cast in the show. Recent Five Towns grad McDonald sheepishly raised her hand, saying, "Sometimes I listen to 'Annie's Song.' "