Corrections or additions?
This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the
May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Victor Talking Machine Co.
It is a truism that theater is the most collaborative
of the arts. For proof one need look no further than Passage Theater’s
upcoming production of Thomas Dunn’s new play, "Victor and the
Getting a new play in shape for its first production is often a dicey
affair. Dialogue that seems to soar off the page when read quietly
in the playwright’s workroom often falls as flat as a dead dodo when
coming out of an actor’s mouth. But director Russell Kaplan believes
that this is all just part of the playmaking process.
"Without a doubt there has been rewriting going on throughout
the rehearsal process," explains Kaplan. "At this morning’s
rehearsal, the actors and I sat around and talked about the scene
we were working on and we all came to an agreement that we wanted
to do a rewrite here and some switching around of dialogue. So I let
the actors take a break while I worked with the playwright. He’s
it now, and hopefully, when we all get together after lunch, we’ll
have a new scene to work on."
Strictly speaking, "Victor and the Virgin" isn’t a new play.
It had a production at a small theater in Florida a number of years
ago. But now, with a revamped script that has been shaped and guided
by strong input from Kaplan, dramaturgs, and the cast, it is new and
improved, and ready to hit the stage for a run by Passage Theater
at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. Previews begin Wednesday, May 9,
and opening night is Friday, May 11, for the show that runs through
Sunday, May 27.
Playwright Dunn, who also directs, writes short stories and
lives in New Hampshire and teaches at Hampshire College. He is
director of the Alchemists’ Workshop and has had his work produced
in New York, California, and Florida.
"Victor and the Virgin" is a two-person drama set in the back
room of a New Orleans honky-tonk in 1925 during the early days of
jazz. Tom Flynn (played by Brennan Brown), a recording engineer for
the Victor Talking Machine Company, has been sent on a long distance
field trip from New York City to New Orleans to search for vibrant
and talented musical artists to record on the Victor label. Among
the recording hopefuls is a sassy young girl with a big voice named
Connee Perente (Lori Prince) who has honed her vocal skills singing
in the whorehouses of the city’s lively red-light district. Of course,
she is quick to point out that she has managed to preserve her
earning her keep strictly as a vocal entertainer.
Flynn is impressed with her vocal skills, but a problem arises when
he learns that Connee’s band includes black and Creole musicians.
In 1925 it was considered inappropriate to record a band of mixed
race and, "for marketing reasons," Flynn has been instructed
to record only white musicians. But Flynn knows in his heart that
if he were to succumb to these guidelines he would be missing out
on recording some of the greatest musical talent to be found in New
While the basic story of "Victor and the Virgin" is
as historical fiction, it is the fiction that dominates.
"This is fiction with a capital F," says Kaplan. "There
are definite references to real people and real events. And the field
trip that was taken to New Orleans really did happen in 1925. But
we sort of blurred some of the historical truth to support the story
of our play. The issues in the play were really dealt with over a
20-year span, so we had to condense things down to make them more
immediate and bring them to a head at the point in which the play
Fictionalizing history in order to more clearly bring out the human
element is something that theater has been doing for centuries, and
Kaplan believes it is especially valid in this case.
"So much has been written about the history of jazz," he
"Look at the recent Ken Burns documentary series. A lot of what
was said in that film had such a mythic quality to it. Not much is
really known about the early pioneers of jazz. It’s mostly just
references that we have from people who had been there. One of the
things that really attracted me to `Victor and the Virgin’ was the
opportunity to fill in some of the gaps. We’re painting in pieces
of the story that may have or may not have happened, but still
fundamental questions about how we got from there to here."
Although "Victor and the Virgin" is not a musical as such,
music — especially jazz — is a huge part of the play.
is sort of the third character," says Kaplan. "It might not
be in the room necessarily, but it is hovering right beyond the walls.
Music is the energy that is going to knock down those walls."
Kaplan was born in 1967 and grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. He
from Emory University in Atlanta and headed straight to New York City
where he began directing plays at Playwright’s Horizons on the
stage. Since then, he has worked on classical and modern plays at
regional theaters all across the country; he served as assistant
for the Broadway production of "The Secret Garden." His
both currently work for the New Jersey Board of Education in Trenton.
The play is set during a period of great technological and economic
change that swept over America after World War I. Eldridge Johnson,
president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, won a court battle
with Seaman/Columbia group over gramophone technology and soon brought
out the "Victrola," a high-quality record player.
Victor also manufactured and sold records, so as
sales exploded in America between 1914 and 1921, the company
But when Victor lost its patent suit, the number of phonograph
and record labels also skyrocketed. Then the Victor Talking Machine
Company, symbolized by Nipper, the lovable Jack Russell terrier
attentively to "His Master’s Voice," began to lose its hold
on the market. With the rising popularity of radio, Victor’s fortunes
declined even further. In 1925 phonograph sales collapsed and Victor
was forced to lay off 8,000 workers.
David Sarnoff, then general manager of the Radio Corporation of
(RCA), was the visionary who saw radio and the music industries as
natural allies. Between 1923 and 1925, Sarnoff had tried to persuade
Victor to license GE/RCA’s electronic sound recording and reproduction
process, to no avail. Finally, in the spring of 1925, Victor’s
bargained with Sarnoff and AT&T representatives, who had a system
of electronic recording and logarithmic acoustic reproduction. Victor
Using this new technology, Victor manufactured the new
Victrola. Sales dramatically improved and the company’s stock quickly
doubled. In 1927, Eldridge Johnson sold the Victor Talking Machine
Company to two Wall Street banks for $28 million dollars. In 1930,
RCA purchased Victor for $150 million, and David Sarnoff became
Now today’s Sarnoff Corporation has provided Passage Theater with
support during the current development of "Victor and the
Alexander Magoun, curator of the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton,
who wrote his dissertation on the Victor Recording Company, has
extensive research and dramaturgy assistance. Sarnoff has provided
financial support as well by buying the 120-seat house for employees
and others for the performance of Thursday, May 17, at which Magoun,
will give a before-curtain talk on the history and technology of the
Kaplan feels that "Victor and the Virgin" is in many ways
the quintessential American play, with a strong unspoken message that
one mustn’t be afraid to take risks.
"As human beings, you can’t be afraid to step off that cliff.
You’ll only fly if you do that. If you’re content to keep your heels
dug into the ground you’ll never get airborne. This is the type of
invention and vision that America has always been famous for. That’s
what both characters do in the play."
Despite the added workload required in developing a new play, Kaplan
feels it is all worth it.
"We are looking at this as a work in progress," says Kaplan.
"The joy of working on a new play is that you have a living
and you also have actors contributing their energies. It’s an
exciting way to work."
— Jack Florek
Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,
609-392-0766. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, May 9 and 10, at 8 p.m.
Opening Friday, May 11, 8 p.m. Through Sunday, May 27.
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