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The Spitfire Grill – A Perspective

Spitfire Grill Poster - Empress Theatre, UT, 2012

Music/Book: James Valcq
Lyrics/Book: Fred Alley
Year: 2001 (Off-Broadway)

Nobody is perfect, and everyone deserves a second chance. These threads are woven into all the stories told in “The Spitfire Grill”, and echoed in the history of the musical itself, which breathed new life into a tale first told in a little-known independent film. In this article, I reflect on the show and its history, examine the many ways in which it improves on the original film, and make the case that it too deserves a second chance to have its moment in the limelight.

Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film started life promisingly, becoming a surprise hit at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and winning the Audience Award. On release, however, it was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics alike, and quickly sank into obscurity.

The Spitfire Grill Film Poster

The Spitfire Grill Film Poster

The film tells the simple, low key story of Percy Talbott, a young woman newly released from prison who travels to the rural town of Gilead, Maine in search of anonymity and a fresh start. She gets a job at the eponymous Spitfire Grill, the only restaurant in town. Gradually, Percy builds friendships with the gruff owner, Hannah and her colleague Shelby, and even with a mysterious hermit living in the woods, but has to endure mistrust and local gossip about her undisclosed past, and attempts to undermine her by Hannah’s nephew, Nahum.

An essay contest to try and raffle off the Grill provides some narrative drive to the story, but the real focus of the film is the story of Gilead, its people, landscape and the losses haunting all of them. Everyone and everything in the story seems lost, and to be looking for a new start, for reasons which become clear as the story unfolds. Percy, newly released from jail, the lost people of Gilead, the town itself, the Grill, and even the trees in the forest. All of them are at rock bottom and looking for a way out, to find that elusive second chance. The arrival of Percy appears to offer the town a first step towards renewal.

In the last thirty minutes, the film lurches abruptly into shocking, unexpected melodrama. Nahum steals the essay contest money and frames Percy and the hermit (Hannah’s lost son, Eli) for the theft. The two are hunted through the woods, and Percy drowns trying to warn Eli. Nahum confesses his crime at Percy’s memorial service in front of the whole town. In the final scene a new owner comes to take over the Grill, and the film tries to end on an upbeat note, implying that Percy’s sacrifice has been the catalyst for the town’s renewed sense of purpose. But ultimately, the ending is unable to shake off the bleak events of the previous half-hour, and it isn’t hard to see why the film failed commercially. When you consider that the film was funded by a Roman Catholic non-profit publisher, the whole “she died so the town could live” theme starts to feel a little like clumsy proselytizing.

The film’s failure and low key subject matter make it an unlikely candidate for a musical adaptation, and Valcq and Alley’s reasons for choosing it are not really made clear in the various articles written about the show. Nevertheless, having decided to give the story a second chance, they made some important changes, starting (predictably) with the ending.

James Valcq & Fred Alley

James Valcq & Fred Alley

The bleak, jarring ending of the film could never have worked in a musical. Valcq and Alley wisely dispensed with it, opting for an upbeat finale which, although it feels a little too neat, is more in keeping with the tone of their musical and the genre of musical theatre as a whole. The revised ending has Hannah abandoning the essay contest and giving the Grill to Percy and Shelby, cementing its future and giving them the second chance they both needed.

The musical moves the town of Gilead from Maine to Wisconsin, and this too makes sense. The landscape and atmosphere of Gilead are important elements of the story. Both authors were from Wisconsin, and felt they were able to evoke the life of a Wisconsin town more convincingly than that of one in Maine.

The downbeat tone of the film (melodramatic final act notwithstanding) is exchanged for a more explicitly emotive take on the story. Moments of lightness and comedy are juxtaposed with some of the most powerfully emotional moments seen in any musical, and the focus is more firmly placed on the characters (in particular the relationship between the three lead women) than the plot.

Interestingly, Hannah’s son Eli is reframed as a deserter from the military, rather than a traumatized veteran. This small change adds power to their eventual reconciliation; Hannah has a lot to forgive before she can give Eli his second chance.

Other changes are more practical. In keeping with the need of a chamber musical to have a small cast. the townspeople are distilled down to the characters of Effy (the town postmistress and gossip) and Joe, Percy’s hapless disillusioned suitor. The local Sheriff is combined with Joe, and Nahum is renamed Caleb.

The changes made by Valcq and Alley have the effect of separating the musical from the original film, allowing it to be assessed on its own merits, rather than by comparison with the source material.

Other aspects of the story remain unchanged in the adaptation. Most significantly the authors wisely retained its small scale, and wrote a chamber musical rather than attempting a flashy Broadway-style adaptation. The musical has a cast of only seven, and a musical ensemble of five (more on this below).

The structure of the show is unusual. Neither traditional (scene-song-scene-song) nor sung through, much of the show comprises “musical sequences” inspired by key moments or dialogue from the film, often with significant internal variations in style and tempo. These sequences are used to convey important emotional context and simultaneously advance the narrative. For example, the opener “Ring Around The Moon” follows Percy’s progress through her release from prison, her journey to Gilead, first meeting with her parole officer, introduction to Hannah and securing a job at the Grill, while also conveying her insecurity, yearning for a new start and relief at being free. “Come Alive Again” charts the rise of the essay contest from last ditch, desperate idea to an event of all-consuming interest to the whole town, while also conveying Percy’s growing acceptance by the townspeople and the feeling of renewal which the town is starting to feel. It’s a clever technique, and helps the show maintain a brisk momentum throughout.

In the revised ending, almost everyone and everything gets their second chance, by standing together and cherishing what is in front of them: each other. Percy now has the Grill, and a family of sorts in Shelby and Hannah, but most of all she has a home, a place where she is accepted and can rebuild her life. Shelby also has the Grill and, freed from Caleb’s dominance, has a chance to be the woman she always might have been. For Hannah and Eli, their reconciliation after a long, painful estrangement is everything they needed. The townspeople and town find a renewed sense of purpose, and Joe stays to tend the woods. Only Caleb’s story seems unresolved. Frustrated and separated from Shelby (the script is ambiguous as to whether their separation is permanent), his fate is unclear. Perhaps his second chance is to be freed from living in the shadow of Eli’s memory, a memory that was never real. Life doesn’t always tie things up neatly…

As is so common in musicals, there is some room for improvement in Act 2, which feels like it’s rushing to resolve the plot threads. Act 2 is already short, and could easily have been five to ten minutes longer to tie things up a little less hurriedly. But this is a minor gripe. The real story of the show is one of people, and by the time the show finishes, their stories have been told.

The show has also been described as being sentimental, and indeed it is. But this is one of its strengths. This is after all a story about how people forgive each other’s faults, and find the best in each other.

James Valcq’s score for The Spitfire Grill is a joy from start to finish. While it’s emphatically a folk music score, it avoids cliché by stirring in elements of rock and bluegrass, hints of blues (“Digging Stone”) and even classical chamber music in some quieter moments. There’s not a showtune in sight, and the music has a distinct pastoral air. The folkier moments vary from jigs and reels to delicate, deeply emotive ballads. There is a great deal of variety in this very un-Broadway score. Lighter moments (Percy’s disasters in the kitchen in bluegrass number “Frying Pan”) are juxtaposed with deeply affecting moments. The most powerful example is “Wild Bird”, where Shelby responds to Percy’s devastating revelation of the horrors in her past with an expression of simple empathy: don’t give up. I am here for you. This utterly beautiful song manages simultaneously to be one of the most shattering yet uplifting moments to be found in any musical. Audiences are regularly reduced to tears. Sometimes the orchestra is too.

This is all achieved with an unusual 5-piece ensemble comprising keyboard, accordion, cello, violin and acoustic guitar/mandolin. Bass, where needed, is provided by the keyboard player. In the absence of a percussionist, the percussive acoustic guitar parts become the driving rhythm of the piece. The distinctive sound of the ensemble (orchestrated by James Valcq himself) also has the effect of evoking the town and woods of Gilead, reinforcing a strong sense of place in the show. The score is so good it feels like a character in the show. Despite the frequent jumps in musical style throughout the show, the ensemble’s “voice” holds the whole thing together thematically, so that the contrasts are never too stark.

The Spitfire Grill Cast Recording Cover

The Spitfire Grill Cast Recording Cover

This is a truly wonderful score, which deserves a wider audience. An excellent cast recording of the off-Broadway production was made and, although hard to find, is still available directly from Playwrights Horizons. A YouTube playlist can be found here.

So, if it’s such a great show, why didn’t The Spitfire Grill take Broadway by storm? While its small scale and unusual score always made it an unlikely candidate for a Broadway hit, the quality of the material and its emotional power might have carried it over the line. But timing matters, and a series of dramatic events in the months leading up to the show’s off-Broadway opening changed everything.

After an initial run in New Jersey in November 2000, an off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons was scheduled for the fall of 2001, preceded by a preparatory workshop. On May 1, 2001, just a week before the workshop, lyricist Fred Alley died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 38, a circumstance eerily similar to the fate of Jonathan Larson, author of RENT. The workshop went ahead and preparations for the full production continued, although one has to wonder if the final version might have been slightly different if Alley had been involved in the final stages of development.

A further blow was dealt by the timing of the full production run. Previews started on September 7, 2001, just four days before the 9/11 attacks on New York, after which Broadway experienced a major slump. The Spitfire Grill received almost universally positive reviews, but the circumstances made a Broadway transfer unachievable. The run finished as scheduled on October 14, 2011 and that was that.

Since 2002, The Spitfire Grill has been almost constantly in production, mostly by community theatres and college drama programs, and with international productions worldwide. The official website maintains a running list of productions, which, at the time of writing, number over 700.

Using an independent, low key, commercially unsuccessful film as the basis for a musical adaptation doesn’t sound like the most winning of ideas, but Valcq and Alley created a rich, captivating work of rare beauty which is adored by audiences everywhere, and treasured by musical theatre lovers.

Their changed ending and the unique, beautiful score gave the story of the Gilead and the Grill a second chance, and but for fate and circumstance its trajectory could have been very different. Perhaps now, it too deserves a second chance.

Playing The Spitfire Grill – Guitar & Mandolin
The Spitfire Grill – Detailed Notes on the Guitar/Mandolin Book

The Spitfire Grill – official website
The Spitfire Grill (film) – Wikipedia entry
The Spitfire Grill (musical) – Wikipedia entry
Licensing information (Concord Theatricals)
Online store for Off-Broadway cast recording CD

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