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Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical


Music by Craig Bohmler
Book and Lyrics by Mary Bracken Phillips

The exciting life story of John Muir has been made into a wonderful Broadway-style musical pageant, which played for several seasons in Concord and Martinez, California. The musical is based on a concept by director Richard Elliott, of the now-defunct Willows Theatre Company of Concord, California.

Stage Scene of Mountain Days

With an original score by award-winning composer Craig Bohmler and lyrics by Tony-nominated playwright Mary Bracken Phillips, Mountain Days premiered with a cast of 80 performers, 28 symphony musicians and a 50 person chorus. The passionate, turbulent, glorious life of John Muir is told on stage, with an emphasis on music, from his youth in Scotland and Wisconsin, to his famous 1,000 mile walk down the Eastern seaboard, to his arrival at the bustling wharfs of San Francisco in 1868, to his travels in Yosemite and his persistent efforts to protect Yosemite and the glorious Hetch Hetchy Valley from destruction.

Concept and Origin

Mountain Days premiered in October 2000 at the outdoor 15,000-seat Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, California, for four performances with an attendance of nearly 10,000. From the start, the musical earned high critical praise. It was very successful among audiences as well - selling out seven of its eight shows in 2001, expanded to 16 shows in 2002, and performed annually for several years afterward.

The original concept by director Richard Elliott of the now-defunct Willows Theatre Company called for presenting the show as an annual event, so the 1,100 seat outdoor John Muir Amphitheater was constructed in the Martinez Waterfront Park for the 2001 presentation. "Historical dramas are common place in the mid-west and the east, but we have very few in California and none in Northern California," Elliott explains. According to Elliott, John Muir is a natural choice for northern California. "After all, he did most of his writing and fought his major environmental battles from his ranch in Martinez, which is now designated a National Historical Site." Thus, the concept included a large cast, from old to young, and included three horses. City and arts leaders wanted to make the musical -- which has not only an important environmental message, but a huge amount of fun with Muir's adventures and his love for his wife, Louie Strentzel -- the centerpiece for an ambitious plan to attract visitors from around the state in similar fashion to the Ramona Pageant in Hemet (Riverside County, southern California). According to Scott Parker, director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mountain Days had all the makings for a successful ongoing outdoor musical drama: " The secret of the success of outdoor dramas is that they dramatize events that were significant in the life of a community or events in the life of a famous person who lived in the community. So people go to these outdoor dramas almost as if they were taking a pilgrimage, going to walk the hallowed ground, as it were. It's not like producing 'Hello, Dolly!' outdoors. (The institute now works with theaters that produce 50 historical dramas, 65 Shakespearean festivals and 11 religious dramas. But they are clustered in the East, and just three historical dramas are staged in California.) Nonetheless, after about six years, financial problems by the Willows Theatre Company which was producing the show, and perhaps aided by the fact that the venue was subject to the chilling winds that blow through the Carquinez Strait, resulted in the production being stopped. The John Muir Amphitheater in Martinez is now re-named the Martinez Waterfront Ampitheater.

Due to unrelated causes, perhaps trying to support three venues simultaneously, the producer of the show, the Willows Theatre Company, after a run of 35 years, went out of business. The Willows Board filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on August 16, 2012. Ironically, two weeks before The Willows closed, it was named one of the "Best Theatre Companies in the East Bay" by critic Charles Kruger in the Examiner.com and the CBS-5 web site.

However, the Mountain Days musical is still available for new productions, and in 2009, Mountain Days was presented by Theatre-Hikes at The Morton Arboretum near Chicago, Illinois. Watch a YouTube video of photos taken during this presentation The video is accompanied by instrumental piano music from the musical. On occasion, songs from the musical are performed at special events at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. A cast recording was made in 2000.

The Story

Muir and Roosevelt - in Mountain Days

This musical reveals a conflicted Muir trying to balance his love of family with his compulsion for the outdoors while being unwillingly drawn into the politics of preservation. The poetic lyrics are often drawn from Muir's copious writings while the sweeping score reflects the grandeur of a land not yet conquered by greed. The story follows his journey from boyhood in Scotland to a farm in Wisconsin; from ingenious inventor to determined preservationist. You take his 1,000 mile walk with him, and see Yosemite Falls through his eyes. As Muir develops from an inventor into a crusader determined to preserve the natural beauty of the land for future generations, historical luminaries such as Teddy Roosevelt and William Keith appear. "A Valley has a Soul" portrays Muir's successful drive to have Yosemite declared a National Park, and his unsuccessful attempt to keep the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley from becoming a "water tank" for San Francisco. The passionate and tender love story between Muir and his devoted wife Louie Strenzel is told as well, with the soaring lyrics of "Love is Knowing When to Let You Go." Songs such as "San Francisco" and "The Political Waltz" give hilarious insight into the culture and politics of the day. The finale is a spirited reprise of "Climb the Mountains" performed by the entire cast, which brings tears of exultation and gladness to your eyes.

Mary Bracken Phillips, an award winning playwright, actress, and vocal coach, penned the book and lyrics for the Muir extravaganza. You can listen to audio excerpts and see a few photos on the Mountain Days section of her website.

Craig Bohmler composed the music for Mountain Days. A composer/pianist/conductor, Bohmler has performed throughout the United States and Canada including three performances at Carnegie Hall. His musical "Enter the Guardsman" took first prize in the International Musical of the Year Competition in Denmark and will open off-Broadway in May, 2001 and has been included in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2000 season. His other works include "The Achilles Heel" (winner of the National Opera Association competition), and "Gunmetal Blues" (National Theater Conference selection). Bohmler describes the play's score as being "Sondheimian in structure and Rodgers and Hammersteinian in musical approach," referring to composers Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. You can listen to audio excerpts and see a few photos on the Mountain Days section of his website.



More from Mountain Days:

See also

Offsite links:

Craig Bohmler - Mountain Days - Music Composer

Mary Bracken Phillips - Mountain Days - Book and Lyrics

 


See also:



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