The sets for the new musical Knoxville were being loaded into Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. The cast had been rehearsing for three weeks and had just started full run-throughs. Then word came that the production was shutting down. It was March 2020, and productions across the country were being canceled as the COVID-19 global pandemic swept through the United States.
A little over two years later, on April 15, 2022, Asolo Rep finally premiered the new musical from lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty, and director/playwright Frank Galati, onstage through May 11. The process of returning to the show—an adaptation of both James Agee’s 1957 Pulitzer-winning autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, and of Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer-winning 1961 play adaptation, All the Way Home—after a prolonged interruption has been both a homecoming and catharsis for those involved.
“It feels like we never left, and the two years were a strange dream,” actor Jason Danieley said on Zoom during a break from rehearsals. “These two years were somewhat necessary for our piece. [They] have given me a stillness that I didn’t have before.”
The reflection allowed by these two years changed the piece for the writers as well. They added two new characters, reconfigured others, and added new songs. There was also no question of the piece not happening: Asolo Rep and the Roy Cockrum Foundation, whose grant made the production possible, were committed to Knoxville coming back once theatre could return. “There’s a feeling that the piece represents a triumph over the pandemic,” Asolo Rep artistic director Michael Edwards said on Zoom. “It didn’t get the better of us.”
Galati first read Agee’s novel, about how the death of a father affects surviving family members, in high school, and he said a musical version had been gestating in his mind ever since. Galati, a resident artist at Asolo Rep, reached out to Ahrens and Flaherty, with whom he’d worked on Broadway’s Ragtime and Suessical in the 1990s and early 2000s, to see if they would work on the adaptation with him.
Ahrens wasn’t familiar with the novel, and Flaherty only knew a few passages, including the prologue which Samuel Barber memorably set to music (in “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”). Both artists began by finding their own ways into the material, ultimately discovering that these songs would have to work differently than songs did in their previous musicals. Instead of continuously driving the plot, much of the music would be about states of being, with the lyrics illuminating what the characters were feeling but not necessarily saying.
The song “Outside Your Window,” for example, comes from a moment in the novel in which Agee describes the night, the man’s thoughts as he dresses, and the wanderlust he feels. The song sets these thoughts and observances to music. The team called this discovery a watershed moment in the show’s development.
“The thrill of realizing he can get into his car in the middle of the night and go, and yet the opposite pull of knowing there’s a warm bed and a lovely wife and all the ordinary things that hold us to our lives—I went, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a lightbulb moment, it was so beautiful,” Ahrens recalled during a break in rehearsal.
Another major development in the writing process was making the author himself an older narrator in the piece. Making James Agee a character opened up Flaherty musically, as he could turn solos into duets and have Agee sing along with his six-year-old self. The musical begins in 1955, the year of Agee’s death and the year he completed the novel’s first draft, with Agee looking at his life and what he’s become.
Unexpectedly, Agee as narrator also opened up the piece to be about more than Agee; it also became about the town of Knoxville, Tenn., and its community. “We realized, wait, this is the story of Knoxville, and also remembering Knoxville and reassembling Knoxville,” Galati said, surrounded by Ahrens and Flaherty on Zoom. Indeed, the writers said that they found a “collective energy” for the piece once they had the character of Agee in it. As the interior lives of the characters came to life, they realized that the musical was about, as Galati explained, “a threshold moment in American history, poised in the zone before World War I, and it reverberates through the hills of Tennessee and all through the country.”
All the artists have been guiding Knoxville through about six years of development—four of them pre-pandemic, since conversations among the writers began in 2016 and then two years since—with each artist bringing their own lives into the process. When the show came into Danieley’s life, in the fall of 2018, his wife, actor Marin Mazzie, had recently died. Ahrens had reached out to him about a month and a half after that and said that the team thought he’d be perfect for the show, but weren’t sure he would feel ready to play a character dealing with the death of a loved one. Danieley has known the writers since 1996, when Mazzie was working on Ragtime in Toronto, and decided that if he was going to wade into such emotionally resonant material, he should do so with them.
Danieley and co-star Hannah Elless, who plays his character’s mother, Mary Follett, have been involved with the piece since the first reading in New York City in 2018. They reunited in June of 2019 for the workshop at Asolo Rep, and again in early 2020. As the shutdown began, they suddenly had to figure out next steps. Danieley and Ahrens drove back to their homes in Columbia County, N.Y., together. Elless had sublet her apartment for the run of the show, but having to stay in Florida ultimately enriched the show as well. For three months she lived with four actors from the company in similar situations, and they grew closer than they would have if they’d only rehearsed another couple weeks together.
“It’s nice to look at someone onstage who is playing your aunt and actually know her and not have to pretend like you know her,” Elless said. “Building real-life relationships with my castmates was the main gift that came out of COVID for me.”
With the show finally open, the cast and creative team have arrived at the moment of return and catharsis they’d been waiting for. “This production is a period on the sentence that has been written over the past two years,” Elless said. “I wonder how an audience will look at this story, because they too are changed. Everyone sitting in the theatre has also gone on a personal journey for two years, and now they’re watching our story in that context.”
Added Ahrens, “It’s so timely, because after these years of uncertainty and pain and isolation we’re doing a show about pain, uncertainty, and coming out of isolation into community. That’s the underpinning of the show and I think that’s why we are here now…We are all finding ways to process death and life and help one another through crisis, and that’s really what the show is about.”
Shoshana Greenberg is a writer based in New York City.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!