Get Your Kicks…On Route 57?

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I’ve just left a design meeting for the first show of Geva’s 2013-2014 season, Pump Boys and Dinettes, directed by Mark Cuddy. And let me tell you, nothing will send you on a trip down memory lane faster than a conversation about good, old-fashioned two-lane highways, like Route 66 – or, as in the musical, North Carolina’s Route 57. Now, I’m not sure if I have ever been on either of these iconic roads (as a child, I’m sure I never noticed what roads we drove on – I was probably too occupied with trying to make truck drivers honk their horns or shouting out state names from licence plates on other cars before my brothers did), but looking at scenic designer Vicki Smith’s research images certainly makes me remember those family road trips fondly.

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Vicki Smith and lighting designer Don Darnutzer are in the house today, talking with Mark and with Geva’s production and front of house departments about the details of the design. Where should the piano go? What kind of floor works best for tap dancing? How will tap dancing impact the floor? Will the sight lines work for the audience? How much will pies cost?

Pies? Are you intrigued? Why does a scenic designer need to know about the cost of pie? The title of the show refers to the two kinds of characters – the pump boys at the service station just off the highway and the dinettes, who run the Double Cupp Diner which is connected to the station. The ladies – Prudie and Rhetta Cupp – serve what you’d expect from a roadside diner in North Carolina, but they are famous for their pies.

A side note: Pump Boys and Dinettes was written in 1981 by six performers, who originated the roles: John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann. Jim Wann told the story of the musical’s creation in a Masterworks Broadway interview, and it’s too good not to share the whole thing:

Pump Boys and Dinettes began with nary a thought of Broadway. I was a scuffling songwriter/guitarist and Mark Hardwick was a piano player/actor. We had performed in a production of my first musical, Diamond Studs: The Life Of Jesse James, in which the James Gang held up banks and trains with guitars and mandolins. It was the beginning of what the critic Clive Barnes later dubbed “musicians’ theatre”, which now has a lineage stretching through a number of successful shows, but at the time Mark and I were unemployed and happy to take a job playing five nights a week in the Cattleman Lounge, attached to a restaurant on one of the darker blocks west of Grand Central.

Our mission was to play country standards to entertain the “tired businessman” who had come for the drinks, the steaks, and the waitresses in classic Western saloon girl attire. On slow nights we’d play original songs I was writing for Mark’s emerging comic persona: “Farmer Tan” and “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” among them. Mark came in one night wearing a matching dark blue twill shirt and trouser outfit. He was so smitten with this fashion combo that I went out and bought one just like it. By and by we had oval patches over the pockets with our names in them. For about a week we pretended we were exterminators, and then I started thinking of a gas station in Chapel Hill, NC, that had old wood floors, a potbelly stove, and music on Friday nights. So we became guys who worked at the gas station. Another week went by and we owned the gas station-why not? Our imaginations were taking over and our Pump Boys repertoire began to grow. The Cattleman management soon grew tired of this nonsense and showed us the saloon door.

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John Foley and Paul Ukena, Jr. joined the band and we played clubs like Cat’s Cradle down South and Folk City in the Village, as well as a party for Ruby Lerner at Manhattan Theatre Club during which Ruby dubbed our guest singers, a couple of “waitresses” who owned a diner, the Dinettes. Cass Morgan and Debra Monk had so much appeal we asked them to join us officially, and Pump Boys And Dinettes was born. But as what? A band? An act? A show? No one knew for sure. Paul left for a real job acting in California; minus a bass player, we saw John Schimmel walking in the East Village and said, “You’re it.”

We were hired to play at 11 PM during July of 1981 at the West Side Arts Theatre on 43rd Street, going on after a musical called Heebie Jeebies about the Boswell Sisters. About 10:45 the Sisters left their New Orleans set and we moved the wrought iron pieces out-of-the-way and put two oil drums in place with handmade signs: “Eat” and “Gas”. Our first night in the 200-seat space the entire audience consisted of the press agent (now producer) Jeffrey Richards, his guest Derek Jacobi, Derek’s friend, and three winos who had come in off the street. Only the winos stayed for the whole show. But Jeffrey scored for us-a Marilyn Stasio review in the Post led to lines around the block, limos, and Liza Minnelli, who beamed and said: “We don’t know what to think and you just lead us down the garden path…”

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We partnered up with friends at Dodger Theatre-Michael David, Ed Strong, and Sherman Warner-and a few months later the garden path was winding past Macy’s as we became the first off-Broadway show to have a number in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was below freezing that year and we all wore long underwear beneath our uniforms, including the Dinettes, who served coffee to Ed McMahon after he nearly fell off an elephant. In February 1982 we moved to the Princess Theatre on Broadway, a warm informal space that had been the Latin Quarter nightclub, beginning a long run of 577 performances highlighted by a Tony nomination for Best Musical.”

pecan pieWhat Jim Wann doesn’t mention here is that when the show premiered at the West Side Arts Theatre, Debra Monk and Cass  Morgan spent their days baking pies in their apartments – and entered the stage for the 11pm show carrying those pies, which they served during the play. To celebrate the humble beginnings of this Broadway hit, Geva will welcome audience members onstage before the show and during intermission to purchase pie, coffee, beer and wine – and to get a closer look at the set. If the conversation I heard today is anything to go by, that’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss!

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