We Spoke With Producer, Casting Agent And Dallas Native Ally Beans About The Upcoming Developmental Performance Of The Musical Oswald.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a challenging subject in general, but particularly so for Dallas — and, well, for obvious reasons.
But what does it take to successfully grapple with both this historical moment and the dense haze of conspiracies surrounding it? Well, in the eyes of a new team aiming to tackle this touchy topic, the answer was simple: Musical numbers, obviously.
That’s the path taken by Broadway stars and Oswald co-creators Tony LePage and Josh Sassanella, who have produced a new musical about Lee Harvey Oswald and his (alleged?) assassination of JFK. Their choice to pursue the story as a musical isn’t meant to take away from the gravity of the event itself, and it’s not the only decision that separates Oswald from other works about the matter: The plot of this effort focuses on the perspective of Oswald’s wife Marina, who was left to carry the enormous weight of her husband’s actions after his arrest and subsequent murder.
Show producer Ally Beans, a Dallas-Fort Worth native, was quick to see the appeal of Oswald — and also quick to recognize how the musical’s success would depend on a greater understanding of Dallas culture and history if it were to reach its full potential.
From May 3 through May 5, Dallas audiences will have an early opportunity to see how the story of Lee Harvey Oswald can be explored in musical form as the Firehouse Theatre will host developmental presentations of the upcoming Broadway show.
In advance of those unveilings, we talked to Beans about what people can expect from Oswald the musical, what the shows at the Firehouse Theatre will entail and why it was so important for her to ensure that Dallas is faithfully represented in the piece.
OK, so first things first, I just basically want to hear as many details as you can share about Oswald the musical.
I mean, where do I even start? It’s an 11-person cast. It is greatly, greatly detailed. It follows the events leading up to the assassination. I think people are going to be really surprised and pleased to see just how factual and detailed the show actually is. There are two actors portraying Lee Harvey Oswald — one is Lee, one is Oswald. One of them follows the events as it’s written down in our history books, and the other sort of buys into some of the conspiracies and some of the unknown about Oswald, and what an alternative outcome could have been. But it really in no way tries to make him any kind of hero. I don’t think this is putting him on any kind of pedestal or making him famous for any of the wrong reasons. I think something audience members will be surprised by is that it’s actually told through the lens of his wife, Marina, who is actually still a resident of Rockwall to this day. She’s this super mysterious woman. It sort of explores that as well. What does it mean to be left with that name, and to live with that name and that story? [That is] a large theme of the show.
Since we’re talking about nailing down the history of the events: There are obviously so many conspiracy theories around the event that create noise about what happened. Also, you’re doing a musical. I’m curious how you fit in all those details and the musical aspect.
There are presently 27 songs in the show. Which, I’ve seen just on various social media platforms, people being like, “Is this 10 hours long?” And no, it’s actually 100 minutes. It’s nearly completely sung, though. There is dialogue, but it moves really quickly. And again, it’s hard to explain — I am not a writer, nor am I a musician. I am just completely in awe of how much information they are able to pack into song. And, on top of that, they’re really good! It’s 2019; it’s not like we have a JFK tap number in this. It’s set to rock music for the most part, and it’s pretty gritty. It’s a musical adaptation of this piece of history, sure. I get how this could be unexpected, so I guess my best answer is that you’re going to have to see it to understand how it works. But it just does! It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. And that’s kind of what drew me to it. Because I’ll admit, I’m a Dallas native and I understand how this is still an open wound for a lot of people. And that has, since the initial news broke about [the assassination], that has for sure been shown to us. Not only are there people who are like, “This is crazy, it doesn’t work, it’s offensive,” but there are also people coming out of the woodwork who are like, “Tell me more” or “I was there” or “I was a nurse at the hospital that JFK was brought into.” It’s crazy how topical it still is. And, I’ll admit, I was a bit of a doubter. I’m like, “How? What? No. We just did Hamilton. Why are we now making musicals about every historical figure in US history?” But then, when I dug into the script, and I listened to some of the demos, and I watched some of the early presentations of the musical, it just… it works. I can’t explain it. I guess is my best pitch to potential ticket buyers is you’re just gonna have to see it to believe it. It really is fascinating. And once I did jump in, I couldn’t not be part of it. I’ve been looking for something to bring back to Dallas because I love when work brings me back home, and this was just the obvious answer. It’ll get people talking, and it surely has.
It is hard to resist the hook of Oswald the musical. But what’s being shown at the Firehouse Theatre isn’t necessarily the final product, right?
We’re calling it a developmental presentation, or a staged reading. One of those. It’s definitely in development.
So, what got you interested in bringing it to the Firehouse Theatre, and more generally to the Dallas area at large?
I have a long history with the Firehouse. I’ve been part of it from the beginning, and the thing that I love the most about the board, and Derek [Whitener], and David [Moore] and everybody who works there, is they’re just “yes” people. This didn’t scare them. It was sort of like, “Hey, I know you’re looking to do new works, and my friends have this piece, and I feel like it’s really relevant,” and the Firehouse is full of people who say, “Tell me more. Let’s figure this out.” Again, from the beginning, just saying yes. And so it’s a really mutually beneficial sort of project for us because they’re really ramping up on their mission in regards to new works. And I’m really looking forward to coming home for a few weeks to work on some theater, and I’m able to offer that. [I’m from] Farmers Branch, born and raised. This is something, not to get super nostalgic, but I didn’t have a community theater when I was a kid. I did shows at Frisco Community Theater. My poor mom spent so much gas money. [Laughs.]
Yeah, that’s not a short drive.
It really was, like… bless her heart. But I grew up, and I was a Project Discovery kid at DTC [Dallas Theater Center]. I saw all the shows there. Dallas really is my creative home. And I don’t know, to be bringing it back home specifically to the Firehouse, like truly in my home, is really something.
So where would this run at the Firehouse fit in with the show’s larger path to being performed on Broadway?
So, this is the first time the musical will be seen in whole. There have been previous presentations of it here in New York, but it’s just been simply concerts with a few songs from the show — like a little slice or a little taste. But [at Firehouse] we are doing the show from beginning to end, all the songs, all of the dialogue, full cast, full band. So that’s what’s really exciting about it. It hasn’t been fully produced yet, and this is going to be the first time that anybody sees it, and we felt that for this story to work and make sense, it needs to start in Dallas. That’s something I’ve talked to the writers about a lot, wanting the people and patrons of — not just the patrons of the Firehouse and the theatrical community there, but the people of Dallas — to feel like they have ownership over this piece, and for the Firehouse to feel like they have ownership over this production. To just kind of put a stamp of approval on it before it goes anywhere else. That was something that was really important to them. On top of that, more practically, it’s more inexpensive for us to take it out of town than it is to be renting space in New York, and using New York musicians and actors. This was a cost-conscious way for us to get the show up, and see it somewhat fully realized. But also it’s a huge research opportunity. We’ve taken a couple of trips down last summer and last fall. We’ve met with the Sixth Floor Museum, we’ve met with citizens, we’ve met with all kinds of people. This, I think, is just going to further that process as well — not just for the development of the show. It’s a dramaturgical opportunity. I know we’re planning some talk-backs. The guys are again, I’m sure, planning on going back to the Sixth Floor Museum. I mean, they want to meet everyone. They want to hear everybody’s take on it. There’s no better place to start this story than Dallas.
I wanted to ask: It sounds like you might be the first person with Dallas roots to join this project. Am I wrong?
I am. I am.
What was it like to be the first person with that connection, and to be able to field and ask questions based in that background to the show’s co-creators?
It’s funny because the first time I sat in a reading of it, hearing it out loud, all of my notes were Texas-specific. [Laughs.] Just like, “We wouldn’t say that. We wouldn’t put it that way.” Or, “You know Fort Worth is actually an hour away.” So, just stuff like that. And something I was a really big cheerleader of when I first came onto the project was I was like, “You guys need to get down there.” Because Josh nor Tony had ever visited. So that was a big thing for me, like, “It’s going to inform your writing so much if you go down there, go to the museum, stand on the grassy knoll, see all the conspiracy people who are still there to this day.” And we did, and they got it. They went to the boarding house, they went to the Texas Theatre. Again, just meeting all kinds of people, and that has really… that was my biggest thing when I first came on the project, as a native. I was, like, “OK, if you’re going to do this musical that’s still such an open wound for so many people, and still talked about, you really need to go down there.” If we’re going to do this right, we have to go there, we have to start it there, we have to do our research there. That kind of ties back into why the Firehouse, and why Dallas.
Were the writers pretty receptive to that?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And they love it. Because who wouldn’t?
So beyond Oswald, do you have any plans or projects in the works for Dallas in the future?
I hope so. I hope to, [but] I want to get this one right first. But I hope to. This is the first, and I’m notorious for filling up my plate with one too many things than I can handle. It’s really important to me that I do this one first and get it right. I still serve on the advisory board at the Firehouse, and I try to see every show in their season, and I do a pretty good job of that. But this is my first time producing something, and I hope it’s not the last. I hope it goes well. But aside from producing, I’m also a casting director. I’ve worked with DTC in the past. I cast a movie that shot in Abilene. [Laughs.] But, yeah, this is my first big producing move. Hopefully not the last.
You first big producing move in Dallas, or just big producing move in general?
Honestly, it’s both. I have a few other producing projects, but this is the only one in Dallas. I have a film we’re hoping to shoot on location that’s kind of been in the works for a long time, but I’ve kind of put the brakes on it until we do Oswald first. Then we’ll bring the film down and see how it goes.
Four separate staged readings of Oswald will be presented between May 3 and 5 at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch. Head here for tickets and more information.