By Marlo M. Ihler
For the creators of the musical, The Spitfire Grill, artistic activities began early in their lives. James Valcq and Fred Alley both grew up in Wisconsin, Valcq in big-city Milwaukee and Alley in rural Mount Horeb. Both were drawn to music and theatre at a young age. During the summer of 1980, while Valcq was attending a summer music camp in Madison and Alley had dropped in to visit a friend at the same camp, the sixteen-year-olds met and became friends almost immediately.
Valcq’s musical background consisted of early training and performance. By age seven he had appeared at the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee. He later went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music and theatre from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as a master’s in musical theatre composition from New York University. The accomplished composer, conductor, and musician now lives in New York City.
Alley, considered more of a renegade, had a background in folk music and theatre. As an adult, he joined a folk singing group called the Heritage Ensemble in Door County, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, Alley and Frederick “Doc” Heide decided to steer this group in a more theatrical direction and renamed it the American Folklore Theatre (AFT). The artistic director was Alley’s lifelong friend, Jeffrey Herbst, who, incidentally, was the friend he was visiting at the Madison summer camp when he met Valcq. For this organization he wrote an original musical based on local folk stories and myths every year for ten years. Such shows included Guys on Ice, Lumberjacks in Love, and Belgians in Heaven.
The two men’s collaboration began following a trip to New York City with AFT, where they were inspired by their visit to Ellis Island to write their first show together. A musical called The Passage for AFT was the result. Alley wrote the lyrics and book while Valcq composed the music. The show premiered on AFT’s outdoor stage at Peninsula State Park in Door County in 1994.
The Passage helped both men to polish their abilities as playwrights and artists. Alley would first write lyrics, to which Valcq would respond with music. According to Valcq, much of the music came immediately if the lyrics were “right.” If the lyrics weren’t quite working, Valcq would push Alley until he wrote lyrics that did. This helped Alley to strengthen his voice as a lyricist. Valcq had the challenge of incorporating instruments that AFT used regularly, such as guitars and mandolins, in order to create suitable musical arrangements. By the time they completed this show, they were eager to work with each other again (Damien Jaques, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, September 14, 2002, www.jsonline.com/onwisconsin/arts/sep02/79632.asp).
Several years passed before Valcq and Alley found a project that was of interest to both of them. Valcq was specifically looking for a story that was “very rural, that was lyrical, that had elements of kitchen-sink realism and . . . some sort of spiritual or elevated element as well” (Paul Hodgins, The Orange County Register Online, www.myoc.com/entertainment/arts/stories/102002/spitfire_review.shtml). Alley wanted to avoid using other mediums as the basis for the story, but finally the two men agreed to adapt The Spitfire Grill, a 1996 independent film written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff that won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The Spitfire Grill tells the story of Percy Talbott, who having recently been released from prison, chooses to start her life over in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. She is greeted coldly upon arrival because of her troubled past, but she soon begins to build relationships with others that eventually alter the perceptions of the townspeople for the better.
It took Valcq and Alley until October 1999 to obtain the rights to the show. Zlotoff was very accommodating and allowed the playwrights to take some liberties with the show’s ending, a few of the characters, and the location of the story—they moved it from Maine to their native Wisconsin because they wanted to avoid having the cast sing with a Maine accent. As for the music, Valcq worked to portray a very “rural indigenous folk sound,” based on the prevalent Scandinavian and Celtic cultures found in Wisconsin. He used such instruments as violin, cello, keyboards, guitar, mandolin, and accordion to acquire this sound (Hodgins).
Soon the duo recorded a demo CD with six songs that eventually found its way into the hands of David Saint, artistic director for the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In April 2000, he called to book the musical for his theatre’s fall season, even though the show was not yet complete. This deadline forced the playwrights to finish it by November 2000. The show opened on time and premiered to critical acclaim.
The next year the musical was awarded the prestigious Academy of Arts and Letters 2001 Richard Rogers Award for New American Musicals. But prior to receiving this award and amid preparations to open The Spitfire Grill in New York City, Alley died suddenly of a massive heart attack in Door County, Wisconsin.
Despite the personal grief caused by Alley’s sudden passing, and then the soon-to-follow, national grief accompanying September 11, the show’s opening off-Broadway caused a buzz within the theatre community. Directed again by David Saint, this production with the high-profile Playwrights’ Horizons, was selected as one of the five best musicals of 2001 by New York Magazine, and won award nominations by Drama Desk, Drama-League, and the New York Outer Critics Circle (George Street Playhouse, www.georgestplayhouse.org/leadership.html).
Since its debut in 2000, The Spitfire Grill has become one of the most produced plays in the nation. Its creators, Valcq and Alley, envisioned this show finding its home with regional theatres because of the story’s rural and hometown feel. It has enjoyed such regional productions in Milwaukee; Chicago; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Laguna Beach, California; Duluth, Georgia; and now Cedar City, Utah.