Why would an accomplished writer/director who's had his plays produced on Broadway and adapted for the big screen premiere his latest play in Richmond?
"I've learned that, after writing something, you have to be its guardian as well," answers Bill C. Davis, who wrote the book for and is directing the new musical "Austin's Bridge," opening at the Firehouse Theatre this week.
"In New York, there are barracudas that circle every project," he says from the safe distance of a Carytown coffeeshop. Davis has been in town for the last few months preparing for the premiere.
"There are always people looking to have things not work," he says. "It's a highly competitive arena that brings out the unfortunate elements of human nature."
But Davis had a great experience when he attended a staged reading of his play "Avow" during the Acts of Faith festival earlier this year, and he started thinking about Richmond for his new work-in-progress.
"I thought, 'Let's put it together here at a safe distance from New York and in a good supportive environment,'" Davis says. He gave the script to the Firehouse's artistic director, Carol Piersol, who immediately agreed to produce it.
"Bridge" tells the story of a rich young man named Austin Quinn who gets caught swindling his father and fakes his suicide to facilitate an escape. He ends up hiding out at a home for mentally challenged adults whose "citizens" become an emotional bridge, leading him from his lonely, superficial life to a more vibrant one full of love and humanity.
It's a story inspired in part by Davis' own life: He worked at such a home, the Rhinebeck Country Village near New York's Catskill Mountains, after graduating from college.
While living and working in Rhinebeck, he wrote the play "Mass Appeal." The comedy, about a middle-aged seminarian butting heads with a confrontational young priest, opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980 and was an instant success, moving ultimately to Broadway. The movie adaptation starred Jack Lemmon and Charles Durning.
While his best-known works are plays, Davis says the nature of Austin's story demanded a musical treatment.
"The citizens in the home where I worked were without subtext," he says. "They would just come up to you with the most important thing [in their lives]. Onstage, that's usually what gets sung. The music was just there asking to be written." But Davis couldn't write it, causing some hiccups in the show's development.
He originally collaborated with Richard Adler, the composer behind "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," and workshopped the show in 1995 with the title "Off-Key." While reviews were positive, the show still needed work, and according to Davis, Adler was not amenable to making changes. With "Bridge," Davis is working with a young composer named Brett Boles, whom Davis calls "a brilliant new talent."
Davis is hopeful about the show's future prospects. "It's the kind of show that could make its way to major cities, or to New York," he says. "But you've got to get it together in a way that makes it undeniable, so your hardest competitor will say, 'You've got something there.' You've got to be given a chance."
In Richmond, Davis will get that chance. S
"Austin's Bridge" opens at the Firehouse Theatre Thursday, June 21, at 8 p.m. and runs through July 7. Tickets are $25. 355-2001.