West Virginia Public Theatre is hosting professional actors and musicians this week in Morgantown. They’re rehearsing a new musical based on a novel about life in the coal camps of southern West Virginia leading up to the historic Battle of Blair Mountain. Authors and musicians aim to highlight the sacrifices that laid the groundwork for the modern labor movement.
The musical is based on the 1987 novel Storming Heaven by West Virginia native Denise Giardina. Giardina says the musical captures the spirit of her book, and that it's respectful of Appalachian culture.
Artistic Director of the West Virginia Public Theater, Gerald McGonigle, learned about the musical being developed through Giardina and negotiated to bring it in early development to West Virginia.
“As the artistic director, it’s really important to me that we do theater that is vital and important to West Virginians,” McGonigle said. “I was a little skeptical that they could bring the power of the story, Storming Heaven, into the musical theater genre, but in some ways it takes the story and elevates it in a powerful way that is unique to musical theater.”
The novel and the musical are set in southern West Virginia leading up to the largest labor uprising in US history in 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The musical revolves around a key character in the novel, Carrie. Co-author Katy Blake, who began writing the musical about six years ago, explains Carrie is a coal camp nurse caught in a love triangle.
“That drama is set against the mine wars going on in West Virginia at the time. She’s an educated woman trying to find her place in the world, which mirrors the miners trying to find their place in the world.”
Blake is herself a singer/songwriter and she’s working with other musical professionals to compose the music, like country western musician Tracy Lawrence. Lawrence took a break from touring this week to work in Morgantown on the musical.
“It’s a fascinating story,” he said. “It’s a heartwrecking story about losing people that you love and the struggle that American people went through years ago to get us to the place we’re at now. And I think it’s something everyone should see to get a sense of the sacrifices that were made by the people that came before us.”
“There are a lot of things that spoke to me personally about this story,” Peter Davenport, the other co-author, said. “I come from Flint, Michigan, so I get the whole union thing and I get when an industry leaves a town how devastating it is. I wanted to pay my respects to not just the people of West Virginia but to those people in the United States upon whose backs the industries and this country has been built.”
The musical is still being developed. Student actors and professionals employed with West Virginia Public Theatre have been rehearsing for a public staged reading to get a sense of how the musical is shaping up.
A reading of Storming Heaven: The Musical will be staged in Morgantown on Saturday, January 19, at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre (WVU Creative Arts Center). The event is free and open to the public.