There’s a little-known fact about Wyatt Earp. Yes, that Wyatt Earp, the famed fearless frontier lawman best remembered as the principal survivor of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Earp we watched for six years on ABC television in the 1950s, and some people caught in the 1994 movie with Kevin Costner. Records note that he had three wives, the first dying early on, but listen up: the other two wives had a simultaneous run. The thought of these two western women duking it out inspired lyricist Sheila Rae to write a musical about their claim on Earp, and his legend, "I Married Wyatt Earp." Michele Brourman, whose resume includes many film and television credits, including the songs for the animated film, "The Land Before Time," wrote the score. They were joined in this project by experienced book writer Tom West. He is surrounded not only by his female collaborators, but also by an all-female cast. The men in this story are relegated to off-stage-character status. Or as West puts it, "off-stage noises."
"I Married Wyatt Earp" will have its world premiere, launching the 19th season at the Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, Pennsylvania, just a short trip down Route 1 from Trenton. Opening Thursday, September 29, this new musical, based on the actual history and legends of the Wild West, will play through Sunday, October 16.
When I talked with bookwriter West in his Maplewood home, I met some other women in his life. Scrubbed and ready for bed, but not ready to be subdued, first one daughter (Miranda, 3,) then the other (Ariadne, 5) came scampering into the room to say goodnight and to plead for a stay of their "sentence." His wife remains an off-stage character for me.
Early morning and late night playwriting sessions are combined with West’s "day" job for the Wall Street Journal, where he trains staff members in the use of publishing software and applications.
"I Married Wyatt Earp" got its start when lyricist Rae discovered a book about Frontier Jews and read about Josephine "Josie" Marcus, an upper middle-class Jewish girl born in Brooklyn. Josie had moved to San Francisco with her family, where, at a party, she met and fell for the sheriff of Tombstone. To follow up on that romance, she ran away from home and joined a Gilbert and Sullivan Group doing "HMS Pinafore," only to abandon them when they reached Tombstone. All did not go well with that romance when she discovered the sheriff cheating on her. However, her adventure continued when she threw him out and found the love of her life, Wyatt Earp. And that’s just the beginning.
The musical is set in 1880 Tombstone and 1943 Los Angeles, where Josie, as an old woman, is fighting to maintain the heroic image of Wyatt. She becomes embroiled in a lawsuit to stop the publication of a memoir written by her sister-in-law, which threatens to tarnish Wyatt’s reputation, including exposing his "other" wife, a wild and unpredictable laudanum addict. There is lots of material for drama here. And that’s where bookwriter West came in – to shape the drama into a compelling and structured whole. "The real story is so wild you wouldn’t believe it," says West. He was intrigued by the "human story," and may have added a touch of forgiveness between two sworn enemies that never happened in real life.
"Ultimately, everything I write tries to burrow through all the stuff that keeps you from forgiveness, either of yourself or someone else," says West.
When West was a little boy growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, his best friend’s parents went to New York, saw the musical "Gypsy," and brought back the cast album, which the boys played over and over. "I think it was the strippers that caught our attention. We thought this was very racy and sophisticated," West says. This also set in motion his great love of musical theater. His father was a business administrator; his mother, a teacher. Both were encouraging of their son’s theatrical interests. He has an older sister who is also a teacher. His grandmother was the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
At Ashland College (now a university) in his home state he had a double major, film/television production and theater. A new arts facility on campus provided him and a small number of students a chance to do everything.
Graduating in 1975, West joined the MFA program that fall at Florida State University. While directing a student production of "The Petrified Forest," he met his wife-to-be when he cast her in the play. His student internship with the Oslo Theater in Sarasota led to an after-graduation job directing the touring company. When the company director wasn’t happy with the available translations of "The Inspector General," he encouraged West to write one. This became the first in an impressive list of adaptations and original books for musicals and a few straight plays. But he admits, "I always liked," he then corrects himself, "loved musicals." "I Married Wyatt Earp" is his seventh book for musical theater. He has also written six plays, adapted from a variety of literary sources, and a one-man play adapted from Mark Twain’s lectures.
Since his two little girls came into his life, West hasn’t initiated as many projects for himself, just grabbing time to write when he can, to complete things that are already in the works. He finds support with a group of theater artists in Maplewood who have banded together as "The Avenue Theater," to develop and perform. "I just have to walk up the hill for readings," he says. "I’ve done a little of this and a little of that." This includes being a stage director, editor, a writing "gun for hire" and "play doctor," and producing some graphic art. He even wrote a coffee-table book about Sardi’s restaurant.
Perhaps the social significance of "I Married Wyatt Earp" grows from this paean to an early emancipated woman. For West, there is a special connection here. Playing the leading role of Josie is Broadway veteran Leila Martin. Among her credits: the original cast of "Gypsy."
I Married Wyatt Earp, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Preview of a world premiere musical directed by Keith Baker, Wednesday, September 28; opening night, Thursday, September 29. Through Sunday, October 16. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100.