Interview piece - James Scolari
Dan Wheetman is a man in whose hands nearly any object seems to become a musical instrument; time spent in his company reveals a soul that is thoroughly steeped in an abiding love of music. Friends of RTC might remember him from A John Denver Christmas, which graced our stage two years ago. Wheetman brings a deep musical pedigree to Lonesome Traveler, and a lifetime of work in both music and theatre. He played with John Denver's band for eight years, has toured as a solo artist and with his band Marley's Ghost, with whom he's been playing for an astonishing twenty-five years. He's also worked extensively in theatre, and is a Tony Award nominee. Equally impressive, if merely as a unique resume piece, he has penned a Christmas song that was recorded by Kermit the Frog.
RTC's James Scolari recently spoke with Dan about culture, music, and Lonesome Traveler:
RTC: With a deep grounding in both music and theatre, you seem the perfect man to serve as musical director for a show like Lonesome Traveler.
DW: I’ve been very fortunate in my theatrical arc; I actually started off as an actor. My last year in High School -- in Simi Valley -- I got into a rock n’ roll band, at the same time I had the lead role in the school play. Well, I missed a rehearsal for the play to go to a rehearsal for the rock n’ roll band, and the teacher threw me out of the play. She might have been thinking I’d come back and say ‘Gee, Mrs. Short , I’m really sorry, I’ll never do that again,’ but I just went ‘okay’ and I went off into music.
I traveled a very interesting road, all through this later folk era in the late sixties, playing music all my life. I work with a lot of people: I open for Steve Martin, I work with the Cheapsuit Serenaders with R. Crumb, the underground comic, I’m in John Denver’s band for eight years, I have my own bands along the way. So years go by and I get a phone call, from a friend in Santa Barbara, saying ‘there’s a theatre looking for somebody who plays fiddle to do a tour.’ So I call these folks up, and I end up playing eight instruments on a tour that’s out for four and a half months -- and so I end up back in theatre; the guy who was the director for that hired me for a couple more things and then the theatre hires me, and I end up sort of swinging out of music as a mainstay, and doing a lot of theatre for quite a bit of time.
So I end up here, years later: here at Rubicon they do this John Denver Christmas thing that I had written with a friend, and who shows up one night but Mrs. Short, my acting teacher from high school. So I got to thank her -- by kicking me out of that play she sent me off on a completely different direction, that took me into a whole other world, and here I am, back at the Rubicon!
RTC: To our great good fortune. You seem tailor-made for Lonesome Traveler, and to see the potential in the words Writer/Director Jim O'Neil set down on the page.
DW: Jim was really smart to realize that the story IS the music -- by making the music the story. So the words on the page were lyrics. It’s all right there in the arc of what we have gone through; the whole story of American music is right there in those early recordings. Those people were not stars; they were people who sang together on porches, for each other. That's the whole tradition over that arc; the recording industry, what happened in that and and how that affected folk music, and how that brought us to where we are now.
RTC: Everybody’s a "Lonesome Traveler" in a fundamental sense -- what a blessing to have such music, broadcasted across large populations, helping to draw the culture together in shared experience of a larger ethic. I see that as a very powerful thing.
DW: It's a two-edged sword. That very thing that exposed that music to a broader audience, also did great damage. Evolution, (shrugs) I guess if the dinosaurs were here we’d all have a much harder life. But that culture suffers because now there’s somebody like Jimmy Rodgers-- you hear him sing and then maybe you don’t think you’re that great a singer, and maybe you quit playing on that porch.
RTC: Or maybe you no longer have to play music at all, since now it comes to you over the radio.
Right. At the same time, yes, it does disseminate this music and culture in a much larger base and preserves, as we well know, this whole body or work that might have been lost.
RTC: So there's this play- this inert thing on the page, a pure potentiality, and the two of you get together, and this collaboration begins - and together you assemble this amazing group of artists...
DW: It has been -- and I think Jim will back me up on this -- an overused word: magical, the way it’s come together. Jim knew me because of the work I did on the John Denver show, and then I was visiting here a while later and he told me ‘I’m writing this piece, and I’d like you to be involved in it,’ and I said ‘yes, that sounds great to me,’ and then I didn’t hear from him for some time. Then suddenly, after a long interval he had done all this research, and it was here -- he called me and we went through this long process of trying to find people, and nobody-- I mean, when you have an equity call, you usually get hundreds of people sometimes. But we had very few showing up, and up until the last minute -- the quality of people that we had arrive was truly amazing... every single performer we’ve gotten has been not only fabulous but absolute perfect for the role they got. Suffice it to say, there were other forces supporting all this.
RTC: I was most fortunate to sit around the table and watch a lot of the early work; magical certainly is the word. It didn’t occur to me, not being fluent in that language, how seamlessly they were coming together; it seemed perfectly natural to me, I’m used to hearing very well rehearsed music.
DW: Everybody in the cast just jumped into the work -- some of them with absolutely no idea about this music. Some of them grew up with it in the house, but others -- well, Brendan (James) told me that when Bruce Springsteen released his Pete Seeger album, he had to go look up and find out who Pete Seeger was! So there you go.
The auditioning was an interesting process for me, because for Nicholas (Mongorio-Cooper) and Justin (Flagg) I wasn’t around at all-- I got videos to look at. For the role Nicholas is playing, I got four videos, from four different people for that role. I watched them all, and Jim asked me, ‘are these guys musically competent?’ I wrote back that every one of those guys could certainly, musically, play the role. But I thought, gosh, Nicholas was very interesting. Though I never said a word. I didn’t try to influence Jim as director, on who he wanted for the character. But I thought, of all the people I saw, Nicholas had a different look, he had a great sound. Jim felt the same way, obviously, since he got the role.
There were a couple of women that came in here in Ventura, that first day, when Justine (Bennett) came in, and there was just something about her. There were people who came in who seemed more musically competent instrumentally, there were people who had a different look, but we thought, ‘there’s something special there, that’s really good.’
The first person that we saw that we knew we were going to use was Sylvie (Davidson). We had the first auditions in Seattle, and we had seen people, and not found anybody. I went in to a theatre where I sometimes work and asked them, and the artistic director asked ‘Have you seen Sylvie?’ I said no-- she was in the play they were doing, and we auditioned her right away, and when we saw her we just said ‘that’s it,’ she’s the one.
It’s been that kind of a process-- every one of our players brings something: they bring a great energy and work ethic; each one, in a very organic way, is perfect for the part they’re playing. It sounds cliché to say, but it was as if there were other forces at work, helping us get this work done in the best possible way.
RTC: The sound of Lonesome Traveler evolves over the course of the show, very tangibly. The simplicity, for lack of a better word, of act one contrasts powerfully with the very rich, moving last pieces where every single voice is in the blend. That evolution seems to carry the timeline of an increasingly sophisticated American ear.
DW: It’s the chronology of the music itself; it starts very simply because of where it comes from, from rural people -- from folks -- playing. Not to say there isn’t sophistication in that; a lot of people mistake simplicity for simple, or unsophisticated, where there’s a great deal of sophistication. There are subtleties in rhythms and harmonies, structure and emotion that you find in any indigenous peoples’ culture-- whether it’s their music or whatever their theatre consists of, their storytelling. There’s always a very fine distinction in there, and if you don’t catch that, you miss the point. Anybody can pick up a guitar and strum the chords and sing the words. The secret is to actually get inside of the culture and feel how those pieces work together and make whatever it is you’re doing represent the place where it came from.
As that music evolves -- as the culture around that music evolves -- it has to reflect the culture it’s in. The culture of New York, Greenwich Village, in the sixties, is not the culture of Deep Gap, Virginia, in the thirties. It’s a different world, and I think the music reflects that. There are some artists along the way who always go back to the roots -- like the New Lost City Ramblers, whose vision and delight is to re-create, as close as possible, the music in its purest form. But there are other people who take it -- the Beach Boys, you know, with “Sloop John B: you listen to that, and it’s not going to be the Bahamian sailing song that you hear, the very simple chordal, rhythmic, working on a ship kind of thing; it’s got those million textures. But if you’re a young kid in Los Angeles in the early sixties, “The Sloop John B.” is a folk song for you; it represents your culture.
RTC: There’s a marvelous idea there -- a handing off of something from one generation to the next; it’s reinterpreted through a prism, through the zeitgeist of the new age.
DW: Exactly, and usually what you see in a culture -- I’m going to use the word primitive, meaning a culture that isn’t technically advancing the way our society is advancing -- you don’t see so great a change over a very long period of time, because there are no other influences. You are born into a culture, you are raised in that culture and that culture is very stable. So that music stays the same, that art stays the same, that language stays the same. But my God, the number of new words in the English language ever year are uncountable, I think; I don’t know that there’s any way to keep up with it. That’s the difference.
RTC: One of the things that I’ve found exciting to witness -- along those lines of a sharing and a handing off -- is the presence of your son Trevor Wheetman in the company, as a musician and Assistant Music Director.
DW: Forced to grow up with me and listen to all my music, yes!
RTC: And look what it’s wrought -- there’s a lot of marvelous music between you two men.
DW: I’ve been in the same band for twenty-five years (Marley’s Ghost - www.MarleysGhostBand.com), so for most of his life he’s been around that band. In our house we often play at night; when everybody gets together after dinner we’ll sit around and sing and play.
For this piece, I couldn’t think of another person who’s more grounded. It was Jim’s idea for this piece to have the people playing the music actually be close to the ages of the people that they’re playing, which I think is a really smart idea on a lot of levels. Anyway, I don’t know anybody else offhand that has that body of knowledge and that capability on as many instruments as Trevor can play. I think he’s a good fit for this.
On a sideline, it’s been really great to see it; he’s the assistant musical director, he’s the one who’ll be responsible for keeping things together when I leave. To see him take it so seriously-- to make charts, and record everything, and really be on top of it, and use his metronome so that he is clocking those tempos, so that they remain true to where they should be, it’s very satisfying.
For a guy who won’t clean his room, I think he’s doing really well!
RTC: So now the music is rehearsed, the play is on its feet, and the curtain is up. I’d guess it’s a bittersweet process, the letting go of this project.
DW: It’s a rocket launch. You do the preparation, and then you want to see it fly, you want to see it get out there in front of people. The hardest part for me is that when we first start I get to play a lot, and now I don’t get to play. I have to sit around and watch other people play! I much prefer playing (laughs).