The Great River Shakespeare Festival is giving birth to a new musical this week in Winona.
Five festival company members — Jonathan Gillard Daly, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Stephanie Lambourn, Michael Fitzpatrick and Corey Allen — have been in a weeklong workshop with a New York-based crew including the musical’s director and composer.
They spent the week rewriting and reworking a script for the musical, “Georama,” the story of the American artist John Banvard, creator of the first georama — a 3,000 foot-long painting of the Mississippi River — who became a fixture of American culture and entertainment in the mid-1800s.
An audience will get a chance to see the first stages of labor Sunday when the festival presents a staged reading of the musical.
“This is a unique opportunity for our festival-goers to see the beginnings of a musical, and they get to give feedback,” said Paul Barnes, the festival’s artistic director.
The musical reading, which includes music and songs, is free, but reservations are required.
Barnes said he met West Hyler, the musical’s author and director, last August when they both were attending plays and auditioning actors at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Hyler learned of Barnes’ role with a festival on the Mississippi River and Barnes found out Hyler was writing a musical set on the river.
“It is amazing we can work on this, writing and rewriting this musical as we sit along the Mississippi River,” said Hyler, associate of Dodgers Theatricals in New York City who directed book scenes for the Broadway musical hit “Jersey Boys.”
“It is inspiring, and I couldn’t think of a better place to workshop the musical.”
Hyler started working on a script a year ago for the musical on Banvard, who traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers making a living as a sketch artist. After creating the georama and gathering considerable fame and wealth, Banvard lived in Boston and New York City and traveled to Europe to showcase his work.
“It was almost a nationalistic pride that Banvard wanted to prove to the Europeans that an American artist could capture the grandeur of America,” Hyler said.
“He did it and shared it all over the world,” he said.
But when Banvard returned to America, he discovered that his work was no longer unique because of his artistic competitors, including the great American showman P.T. Barnum.
After a series of bad business decisions, Banvard died in poverty and obscurity in a small town in South Dakota, where pieces of his work were discovered enclosed in the walls of several local buildings, supposedly being used for insulation.
On Tuesday, the second day of rehearsal, the actors worked through the script with revisions. Hyler said he finds the company actors talented and easy to work with on the script.
“In only our second day of rehearsal, this would be a good reading already,” Hyler said. “I’m pretty excited.”