"I deliberately stayed away from workshopping The People vs. Mona," says Jim Wann, who wrote the show's music and lyrics and co-wrote the book. "I didn't want conventional wisdom dictating to me how the story or music should be written. I knew, for example, that if I workshopped the piece, especially in New York, I'd be told, 'Oh, you can't have a gospel number in the second act. That's been done before.' Well, we wanted a gospel number in the second act, and we did it!"
The People vs. Mona is an unabashed musical throwback that marries screwball comedy, courtroom drama, and love triangle. Set in Tippo, Ga., it tells the story of the voluptuous Mona, owner of a popular musical hangout called the Frog Pad, who is accused of killing her husband on their wedding day. Though she insists she's innocent, her chances of acquittal seem slim: Her bumbling lawyer has never won in court, while the cold-hearted prosecutor—his fiancée—has never lost. Further, if Mona is convicted, her beloved Frog Pad will fall into the hands of unscrupulous developers. Comic chaos ensues. The down-home Southern score includes country, blues, jazz, and gospel.
"This is the first time I took on the challenge of writing a book musical—doing it all," says Wann, best known for the highly successful Pump Boys and Dinettes, which was nominated for a Tony and four Drama Desk Awards. "One of my goals for Mona was to incorporate Southern music into a book musical. I'm not interested in big, belting Broadway voices or bravado or singers who can hold high notes." Along with showcasing the region's musical heritage, he says, "I wanted to create the image of the New South in this show. The multicultural cast is very deliberate."
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., the 58-year-old Wann, who still speaks with a Southern accent, has eclectic interests. He is as committed to environmentalism as he is to musical theatre, and he currently hosts the PBS series Farmers' Almanac TV, which features segments on gardening, cooking, natural cures, and meteorology.
A child of the 1960s, Wann majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "thinking I'd be a guitar player and work as a bartender. I enjoyed the counterculture life." He had no intention of writing or performing in musicals, but—in the freewheeling spirit of the times—when the idea of creating a band-driven Jesse James parody popped into his mind, he and pal Bland Simpson gave it a shot, with Wann in the title role.
Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, a Saloon Musical was a hit in the backrooms of Chapel Hill restaurants, and soon New York producers were checking it out, including a young Michael David, "who brought the show to the Westside Theatre, where we remained for seven months in 1975," Wann recalls. One of the show's notable elements was the way it incorporated the musicians into the onstage action. "It was a musicians' theatre," he says. "I know it's done now—the recent Sweeney Todd revival did it—but I believe we were among the first."
The challenges of The People vs. Mona begin with its mystery theme. "Mysteries have been done before, some with more success than others," Wann says. "Baker Street was not a success; Edwin Drood was. Now there's Curtains. Stephen Schwartz said it's the hardest form. Clues, red herrings—the whole whodunit aspect is not something you can sing about easily. Another challenge is that the central character is the defendant. Typically, in most courtroom drama, the defendant doesn't do anything. We had to get Mona up and center and at the same time play within the courtroom-drama conventions. Also, within the parameters of this piece, we wanted to make the love story believable. We don't want the characters to be one-dimensional. And we wanted to establish the idea that the fate of this small town is tied to Mona's fate. If she's acquitted, the town will be saved. This is about cultural heritage."
Next were the musical challenges. "I didn't want the singing to be genre-based," Wann says. "I wanted the songs to emerge from character. The other challenge was to avoid filling up songs with exposition. Songs should be expressing something the character is feeling, so that the singers have an emotional motivation to be singing. For the most part, exposition should be in the dialogue."
Despite the tuneful melodies he creates, Wann doesn't read music: "I'm musically illiterate. I hear the song in my head, and then I sing and play it on the guitar. Someone else then writes it all down. I always work with an arranger." Wann's wife, Patricia Miller, co-authored the book; they previously collaborated on the musical Jim's Garage, though their work habits are very different. "Patricia works faster than I do," Wann says. "I'm a plodder. But that's okay: She'll toss out an idea and then she'll let it go, and the idea simmers with me. Also, she's kind. If a song isn't up to standard, she lets me down easy, knowing that I'll eventually figure it out myself."
Asked what he looks for in performers, Wann says, "Besides the requisite talent and looks, I want to work with actors who are real people, reliable, and able to be part of an ensemble. Technical expertise in the singers is not a top priority. After all, I write from instinct."
Wann hopes The People vs. Mona finds an audience and moves to Broadway or even a larger Off-Broadway house. Not one to remain idle, however, he is currently collaborating on another musical, The Great Unknown, with William Hauptman, who wrote the book for Big River. Based on the true story of Civil War veterans who set out to explore the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the show will have resonance—politically and environmentally—for contemporary audiences, Wann says.
"The veterans took the journey—not knowing it was even possible—in an effort to pull themselves together and heal themselves after the war," he says. "They also wanted to do something that would capture the imagination of a public tired of war. One of the men on that journey was John Wesley Powell, who lost an arm fighting on the Union side. He was an early environmentalist who fought corporate interests…. The music will be acoustic, pretty and clear, evoking 19th-century folk tunes and the songs of Stephen Foster—the first American commercial song writer—with original piano concertos. This piece will be more epic than anything I've done."
The People vs. Mona is running at the Abingdon Theatre in New York through Aug. 4. Tickets: (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.