Austin musical about Clara Barton exalts Red Cross founder


This is how you know Austin’s performing arts heal.

From July 11 to 13, Austin Playhouse – which worked quietly on his new permanent home and hosted mostly video performances during the pandemic – will present a live, in-person concert version of a new musical at the Stateside Theater, adjacent to Paramount on Congress Avenue.

Take this: a workshop of a musical in the making. It’s the kind of hopeful project you produce when all your other ducks are lined up. It’s an incredibly inspired and ambitious choice for the troupe’s comeback on stage.

With music by Jenn Hartmann Luck – and lyrics by Luck and award-winning Austin playwright Suzan Zeder – “The Battlefields of Clara Barton” tells the story of the nurse, activist and teacher who founded the American Red Cross.

Again, this isn’t an easy subject for a new musical, which makes director Lara Toner’s show all the more enterprising and admirable.

“The Austin Playhouse Workshop is a dream come true for me and for the project,” Zeder explains, “as it will focus primarily on music, with a compressed and tightly edited script linking the 32 songs on the show. places a totally stellar cast and we are all very excited to be live and in person with actors, musicians and the audience. ”

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Composer Jenn Hartmann Luck wrote the music and collaborated with playwright Suzan Zeder on the lyrics for the musical "The battlefields of Clara Barton."

Already five years in the works, “Battlefields” began with Zeder’s time at Imagination Stage in Washington, DC, where she wrote and developed her play for young audiences, “When She Had Wings”.

“The theater was right next to Clara Barton’s house – which was the first American Red Cross headquarters – and I walked past it every day,” Zeder says. “A passing remark from the director of this show aroused my curiosity about Clara Barton, about whom I knew very little.”

Early research into the reality of what Barton faced on Civil War battlefields and elsewhere convinced Zeder that this wouldn’t end up being another play for young audiences. So she contacted the University of Texas and Northwestern University for development partnerships. However, she didn’t want to tie the project to a particular venue or theater group, which would put too many eggs in one basket.

“Clara Barton’s story was just too big, too daring, too contemporary to be limited by the limits of a commission,” she says. The first workshop was held at Northwestern in Chicago in the fall of 2017. “All I had then was the first act, the lyrics of the music numbers and no songwriter.”

University of Texas playwright Suzan Zeder developed "The battlefields of Clara Barton" for five years.

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In December 2017, Jenn Hartmann Luck joined the group as songwriter – her style for the series has been described as “folk / rock / historical / contemporary” – and the duo eliminated the first full draft of Act I with all his songs.

Hannah Wolf, then a graduate student at UT, led a cast of Austin students and veterans in March 2018.

At this point, actor Michelle Alexander got attached to the project and the rest for the next releases.

Zeder wrote Act II in January 2019, and KJ Sanchez led a workshop for this section, again with a mix of veteran and student actors. A third UT workshop – in partnership with Zach Theater – in October 2019 brought the two acts together, this production directed by graduate student Jess Shoemaker.

In June 2019, Northwestern’s American Music Theater Project booked “Battlefields” for a climactic workshop scheduled for May 2020.

“We all know what happened in May 2020,” Zeder says, “so we rescheduled for September 2020, and we all know what happened in September 2020, so we rescheduled for April 2020, and We all know…”

The show will be presented at Northwestern in Chicago – where it started – in the fall, but first, the American Music Theater Project team will be heading to the Austin Playhouse performances.

“The constant touchstone throughout the five years of the development process has been Austin’s artists, educators, students, professional actors and musicians,” Zeder said. “I’ve always said that ‘Clara has always got what she needs to become fully herself’ – and this Austin Playhouse production is the last stop on this wonderful journey.”

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]

“The battlefields of Clara Barton”

When: July 11-13

Or: Theater in the United States at Paramount, 719 Congress Ave.

Cost: Tickets start at $ 30.

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