By MORGAN STEWARD
Billy Recce, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’19, sat one row ahead of me in the Kehoe theater, with his laptop wide open and eyes fixed on the stage in front of us. With collaborator Joel Kirk beside him, Recce furiously typed notes as he watched his actors do a run through of his new musical dramedy, “The Charlatans,” for the very first time.
The 90-minute one act comedy is unlike anything Recce has ever embarked on before— with equal parts drama, emotion and comedic flair, the musical is a nonlinear exploration of the final fictional moments of the real-life, immensely loved Televangelist Jan Crouch.
Recce let The Observer behind the scenes to hear the first ever full rehearsal performance of the new musical and gave us an exclusive interview where we discussed everything from resurrected chickens to Dolly Parton and his inspiration for this utterly heart-wrenching yet hilarious new show.
“The Charlatans: A New Musical” follows Jan Crouch as she puts on her final Praise-a-Thon for the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Crouch, in all of her southern, over-the-top glory, was a real Televangelist introduced to Recce by Daniel Alexander Jones, the head of Fordham’s playwriting program. “[Alexander] came to me with the idea,” Recce explained. “He sent me some links about her… there was one video of her just talking about the horror of the rapture, but you know in this adorable sweet way with charm. And of course her look is just like so campy and over the top that she just begged to be musicalized.”
Because Recce based this story on a real popular figure, he first needed to do ample research on the family and the controversies surrounding them to discover which direction to take the script. Much of what can be seen in his play, including a six minute “Pirates of Penzance”-esque musical number recalling the time Jesus resurrected a deceased pet chicken, is based off of real events and stories Jan and her husband Paul told either on their own television station or in one of the many interviews they did.
Though he was somewhat bound by historical accuracies, the private nature of the family still allowed Recce to use his creativity when creating the story. “There were gaps to be filled. They were a really private family and didn’t have this out in the open… there was a lot that they had hidden,” he recalled. “[The process] began as looking at the darker sides of their life and trying to understand them [then I] looked at the scenes that got them there to sort of do the math as to why they ended up where they did.”
Recce’s writing strategy for “The Charlatans” was unlike his usual approach to musicals. Before he even sat at a piano to write any music or lyrics, Recce had written a full play version of the show in an effort to really delve into the characters and flesh out what motivated each of their actions. Once he understood his characters, Recce was able to go back through the script and decide what moments deserved to be musicalized.
“This show is structurally a lot different than my normal stuff which is often really linear, very self explanatory. I really wanted the plot line to stem from a stream of consciousness with this woman and this family and not necessarily scenes that would propel a plot forward, but would instead propel the characters forward. All of [my] songs [typically] fit into the narrative whereas for this one, the songs would more often than not comment on the action,” he said. “This was really interesting; it was like dissecting which moments need to be savored and which moments that the characters needed a breath to just think about what they are going through. This whole show was kind of an experiment for me to push what I normally work with.”
When it was time to write the musical, Recce had to reach outside of his musical theatre comfort zone to compose folky country music that would exist in a pop-gospel performative world. To do this, he listened to a lot of folk and gospel music to teach himself how successful songs are written in those genres. But, being the true theatre fan that he is, Recce couldn’t help but include odes to other theatre legends in his own work, most noticeably “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“I really love busy lyrics, fast lyrics and strong wordy lyrics. With the chicken song, I [knew] this needed to be a country bumpkin, sitting on the porch, everybody strumming banjos kind of tune. If Dolly Parton wrote the ‘Pirates of Penzance…” that’s what I wanted that song to be,” he laughed.
Because the story is nonlinear, Recce needed to fabricate one event to anchor the story and tie all of the pieces together. He chose to give Crouch one final Praise-a-Thon, one final spectacle to raise some money, sing some tunes and give TBN’s loyal viewers a chance to see their idol in action.
“The idea for her last Praise-a-Thon came from discussing what really fuels a person like this with different collaborators. In research, we came up with the idea that she wants to be loved— that’s completely what drives her life. What better way than to showcase this love and showcase this thirst for love than her saying her last goodbye,” he said.
“The Charlatans: A New Musical” with book, music and lyrics by Billy Recce and directed by Joel Kirk premieres at Fordham’s The Veronica Lalley Kehoe Theatre on February 12 and will run until February 14. For those who won’t be able to see the show live, enjoy this exclusive video of the cast of “The Charlatans” singing “One More Mountain,” courtesy of Billy Recce.