September 8, 2003
an interview with
by Chris Jensen
Jim Wann is the principal author/composer of the Broadway hit Pump Boys and Dinettes and was also its leading man on Broadway. Nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical and Best Music on Broadway, nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Musical in London, and winner of Canada's Dora Award for Best Musical, Pump Boys is the longest-running musical in Chicago theatre history. It holds the record in Branson, Mo., as the longest-running Broadway show there, and has been performed around the world, from Scandinavia to South Africa to Australia. In addition to his long runs on and off Broadway, Wann has performed nationally on the Today show, Good Morning America, the Tony Awards broadcast, and various PBS and syndicated radio programs. On tour, he has sung, played and acted on stages ranging from flatbed trucks to symphony halls (symphony included), from riverbanks to cabarets, in schools, churches, clubs, and arena - with special affection for vintage theatres. (For a complete bio, visit www.jimwann.com.)|
Jim Wann arrived in Charlotte in August to begin rehearsals for the official 20th anniversary production of Pump Boys and Dinettes by Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Wann will appear on stage as "Jim" for the first time since 1986.
Where and how did the idea for a country music revue originate?
It began when I was working with Mark Hardwick, doing a two-man music show five nights a week in Manhattan. It was in the lounge of a restaurant called The Cattleman. Mostly as a way to liven up the evening for ourselves, I started writing songs about these two fictional guys who ran a gas station. Two guys became four, and later the Dinettes joined us. The show grew little by little over a year or two and without much thought, until we started to get theatre bookings.
How would you describe the music to someone who hasnít seen the show or heard the music?
The music is a blend of Southern roots music styles - blues, Gospel, folk, rockabilly, a cappella and swing, to name a few - all informed by a musical theater sensibility.
Pump Boys and Dinettes was conceived and written by six people. How did you know each other, and what can you tell us about the collaborative creative process?
Of the original six collaborators, everybody knew at least one of the other collaborators beforehand. I wrote about two-thirds of the songs by myself or with one or more of the others. The original Dinettes , Debra Monk and Cass Morgan, wrote several songs together about their relationship and working life. All four of the original Pump Boys (John Foley, Mark Hardwick, John Schwimmel and I) wrote one song together.
Did the songs come before the storyline, or vice versa? Or did both emerge simultaneously?
The songs really did come first. As we figured out what order to do the songs in, we started writing material to connect them. All of the songs in Pump Boys & Dinettes tell a story for a character. All of them emerged from a sense of the character.
To what extent is this show based on real-life experience?
"Fishermanís Prayer" is based on something that really happened "Catfish" is based on a specific day in the life. "Mamaw" was about my grandmother and family relationships. Debbie Monk, who wrote "Tips" with Cass Morgan, had been a waitress in New York. "Sister" was written by Cass Morgan and was based on her real-life relationships with her sisters. The rest of the songs were written for the characters, mostly out of imagination.
Why do you think the show continues to be popular after 20 years?
First of all, the material is very solid. And people who perform it really seem to enjoy performing it, and that enjoyment translates to the audience. The show also gives a sense of a group of friends in a fairly close-knit community, and I think that strikes a chord with people whose relationships are sometimes driven apart by the stresses of modern life.
What will be special about this official 20th anniversary production of Pump Boys and Dinettes at Charlotte Rep?
There is considerable artistic ambition here as opposed to doing it as a revival, doing it the way it has been done for 20 years. Weíre taking the approach that if it ainít broke, we wonít fix it, but at the same time, the musical arrangements can be refreshed, and we have a chance to incorporate more movement with the band and back-up singers. These are things we will have the liberty to explore with a top-notch cast. Fans of the show will feel like itís the same show theyíve always loved, but it will have more impact. It boils down to adding more punch to the musical arrangements and more movement in the songs.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I am very excited about working with Michael Bush and what is shaping up to be a hugely talented cast. I havenít performed in Pump Boys since I did it in Los Angeles in 1986, so it feels like a new project again. I didnít want to do the show again unless or until the right situation came along, and doing it with Charlotte Rep is the right situation.
~ Chris Jensen