Stravinsky used to say he liked the word “composer” because it meant, essentially, “organizer.” That expansive title also fits James Valcq, who wrote the score for the 2001 musical The Spitfire Grill and a handful of other musicals and plays, but whose main job is as co-artistic director, with Robert Boles, of the 84-seat Equity theatre Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. In that leadership role, he wears a variety of hats: director, actor, playwright, music director, conductor. And while he wouldn’t have it any other way, that varied workload means he hasn’t been singularly prolific as a composer. His last musical, Boxcar at nearby Northern Sky Theater, opened this past summer, but he hadn’t written one since his 2014 adaptation of the children’s book Anatole for Milwaukee’s First Stage, and before that Victory Farm at Northern Sky in 2012.
“I’m waiting for the right project,” Valcq explains, not only of his current stance but also his general approach to selecting the next thing to devote his energy to. “I’m pulled in a lot of different directions; there’s always something creative to do.”
One powerful pull was Fred Alley, a co-founder of Northern Sky (originally American Folklore Theatre) with whom Valcq first wrote a musical about immigrants, The Passage, then set out to musicalize the hit indie film The Spitfire Grill. That production put Alley and Valcq on a roller coaster: a quick writing process for New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, where the show attracted the attention of New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, followed by Alley’s sudden death at the age of 38, a New York opening less than a month after 9/11, mixed reviews, and a rich afterlife that has included 700 productions and translations into Korean, Japanese, and German.
While Valcq felt Alley’s loss acutely—they’d been friends since their teen years—he notes that all the musicals he’s written since have been with people he “wouldn’t have known without Fred. It’s like I’m still collaborating with him.”
Valcq’s own musical background is chiefly as a vocalist, first as a boy soprano (“I was a go-to Amal for a few years”), then as a voice major. He also picked up some accordion chops in his early years; as he explains, “I’m from Wisconsin, come on—we all grew up with that strap on.” By the time he attended NYU’s musical theatre writing program, the training wasn’t about music per se but about storytelling.
That’s still his focus. When asked about his musical style, he demurs—he’s written scores inflected with folk, country, classical, pop. Whatever the sound, all of it, he says, is “a response to the lyrics; there’s not much music in me without the words.” Citing Mozart and Verdi as guides, he says his favorite moments in musicals are “long numbers you wouldn’t call songs—they’re song structures within larger structures, where all of the characters are feeling their feelings, but you have to capture it in music. That’s what really excites me.”
He’s also made a specialty of stepping into other composers’ shoes. This month he’ll revive his popular Velvet Gentleman, in which he performs music and prose by the impish Erik Satie.
And he’s preparing a centennial staging of George Gershwin’s first complete Broadway musical, the all but forgotten La-La-Lucille!. It’s a task of reconstructive surgery that involves nearly all his theatrical tools, as he works to pull together fragments of book, lyrics, and music from archives and libraries. “It’s like if you found the scattered pieces of a quilt your grandmother made, and you made a new quilt that wouldn’t exactly be her quilt but would be all hers.”
Sounds like a job for a good organizer.