CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – One thing that really annoys Dr. Richard Gildrie, emeritus professor of history at Austin Peay State University, is when people commonly mistake Benjamin Franklin for a serious, pompous old man. Don’t even mention to him D.H. Lawrence’s essay criticizing the founding father’s seminal work, “The Autobiography,” unless you’re looking for an argument.
“That essay angered me so much, in which Lawrence took seriously the assumption in ‘The Autobiography’ where Franklin said he wanted to be perfect,” Gildrie said. “The whole thing is obviously a spoof. Few people understand that Ben Franklin was quite a comedian, and the Pennsylvania Gazette was a sort of ‘The Daily Show’ of its time.”
These misconceptions finally became too much for Gildrie, and he decided to do something about it. He sat down and wrote a play in the form of a restoration comedy, using Franklin’s actual words. It premiered in 2002 at the Roxy Regional Theater to modest success, but something was missing.
“Meredith, my wife, asked me if I thought it could work as a musical,” Gildrie said. “I didn’t know, so I asked John McDonald (Roxy artistic director). He said, ‘oh yeah. Go for it.’”
So Gildrie turned to an old friend who happened to be in the audience the night of the show’s premiere – Dr. George Mabry, emeritus professor of music at APSU. The men spent about two summers in Mabry’s basement, drinking coffee and making each other laugh while they fleshed out the work into an hour-and-20-minute musical. At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 15, the new show “Ben and the Virtues” will première at APSU’s Music/Mass Communication Building’s Concert Hall as the climax event of the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts’ 25th anniversary celebration.
The play is a one-act musical in the witty restoration comedy mode of Voltaire with music that pays homage to the 18th century and some of the classics of musical theater. Mabry described his compositions as “Mozart being mugged by Gilbert and Sullivan.” The plot focuses on Franklin’s early life as a printer in Philadelphia, where he and a group of friends, both real and fictional, meet in a tavern to debate and cultivate different virtues.
The work has evolved drastically since its first showing in 2002. After that initial performance, Mabry wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved with turning it into a musical.
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Mabry recalled. “Richard has been a friend since 1970 when we came here to APSU. So a friend gives you something and you look at it and go, ‘hmmm.’ So I read it and read it, three or four times, to see if I could find anything in it.”
He decided to give it a shot, just for fun. The first thing the two men agreed on was that the music must sound as close to the 18th century as possible.
“I’m good at aping, at stealing, I’m good at plagiarism,” Mabry joked. “We stole from Franklin, we stole from Mozart, we stole from Salieri. Just little bits and pieces. I finally said, ‘yeah, I think this could work.’ It got serious with me.”
Mabry combed through the script, identifying scenes that he thought could be turned into production numbers. Then came the difficult task of using Gildrie’s words, or rather Franklin’s words from the 18th century, and transforming them into song lyrics.
“Because of the way the prose flows, the lyrics turned into things that you could write in rondo form and sonata form,” Mabry said. “The overture of the piece is an original tune from the 18th century called ‘Good Ole Colonial Days,’ and I took the first four bars of that song and turned it into ABA sonata form. It was really interesting to me as a musician.”
The centerpiece of the show is a phony court trial, based on Franklin’s embellished writing for one of his newspapers.
“One of his fake news stories was from Connecticut about a young woman who was habitually producing children out of wedlock,” Gildrie said. “She defends herself by saying she’s producing wonderful children for the king, and that God must not be unhappy because the babies are all healthy.”
The scene turns into a hilarious satire, pushed along by the music that calls into question the characters’ abilities to overcome, scientifically, the vice of lust.
Gildrie hopes the work transforms the audiences’ perception of Franklin while also providing a glimpse into the mindset of the intellectuals of that age.
“I wanted to engage the audience in the way people in the 18th century thought about problems,” he said.
Mabry had a slightly different approach.
“Being somewhat ham-ish to begin with, the most important thing for me was to entertain the hell out of the audience,” he said.
The musical runs for three days, with show times at 7:30 p.m. on April 15 and 16, and a matinee at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 17. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and free to APSU students with a valid I.D.
For more information on this performance, contact the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts at 221-7876.