Main Street Arts in Saxtons River is home to the largest collection of Charles Henry’s painted stage curtains in the state — the world in fact — and has created a musical celebrating the unique and colorful Vermont theater artist and vaudevillian.
“What really seems to be working is to have one foot in a realistic kind of story and another foot on the stage doing vaudeville numbers, which reflect the lives and story of the characters,” explains Cass Morgan, who spearheaded the creation.
“It seems to be working really well. It really is fun.”
Main Street Arts will present the world premiere of “Charles Henry’s Final Curtain,” book and lyrics by Morgan and Sarah Knapp, music by Steven M. Alper, Nov. 9-18 at its theater in downtown Saxtons River.
This original vaudeville musical celebrates Vermont’s own itinerant scenic artist, playwright, musician and vaudevillian. Henry traveled the state for more than 25 years with his family of performers, creating entertainments and painting theater curtains everywhere he went. This new musical is set in 1915 on the eve of World War I, as Henry prepares to retire to Vergennes and run the opera house there.
While this musical is a community production, it’s hardly an amateur creation. Morgan, a resident of Saxtons River, is a veteran Broadway performer and co-creator of “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and best known in Vermont for her performances at Weston Playhouse.
Morgan was inspired by Main Street Arts’ 2015 Five Seasons Project, for which a number of local artists painted new theater curtains in honor of the Charles Henry collection.
“So I decided I had to find out more about it,” she said recently by phone. “I just flipped: This is classic, a piece of American history that needs to be told.”
So Morgan met up with Chris Hadsel, author of “Curtains Without Borders,” who headed a project to restore painted curtains around the state. Morgan gradually discovered Henry.
“This guy wrote his own plays, starred in them with his family and even painted the scenery,” Morgan said. “He would hang out in various towns for a month or so at a time creating work and put on shows at night.
“And they would all pile in whatever it was, a wagon or near the end, automobiles, and move on,” Morgan said. “I fell in love with him. It was screaming to be a show.”
Morgan found little information online, just bits and pieces. She also talked with Don McLean of the Guilford Friends of Music, which had produced “A Battle of Wits,” Henry’s last play (quoted in the musical).
“So I just cobbled it together,” Morgan said. “I had some letters; I had some newspaper articles at the time about performances that he gave.”
Morgan also researched vaudeville itself, the nature of it and what life was like on the road.
“It gave my collaborators and myself the background to let the characters speak to us,” she said.
Finally, they created an imagined show, set in Saxtons River, on the eve of Henry’s leaving the road to settle in Vergennes.
“It seemed to me that the way to tell this story was to hang it on how difficult it might have been to let go, having so many friends all over,” Morgan said. “That must have been tough.”
In the show, the entire family participates though, in fact, they had already moved on to their own lives.
“Arthur was a very successful bandleader in Bristol, and Florence and Jim may already have had children by this time,” Morgan said. “We played a little bit with the times to have it all line up.”
The music and lyrics sound straight out of the vaudeville era.
“Sarah wrote the lyrics for ‘I Played the Piano Man,’ ‘Painted Puppy’ and ‘Who Wears the Pants in the Family?’; she has the skill in that field,” Morgan said. “My lyrics are ‘Come Be with Me in Vergennes,’ ‘My Past,’ his kind of existential crisis song, more introspective stuff.”
Morgan hopes that “Charles Henry’s Final Curtain” can be shared with other theaters in the state with Henry curtains, perhaps even touring it.
“My goal is for everyone to have fun,” she said. “It’s pretty funny — there’s a live chicken and a live goat.”