By Lynn Venhaus
When composer and music director Colin Healy first heard the story of wealthy brothel madam and philanthropist Eliza Haycraft, he was intrigued. On Aug. 16, “Madam,” the musical about this infamous St. Louisan that he wrote the book, music and lyrics for, had its world premiere at the Bluff City Theatre in Hannibal.
Bluff City Theater commissioned the musical, where Healy has been the music director for the theater since 2017, and a branch of the Haycraft family is involved with BCT. Healy is artistic director of his own companies, Fly North Music and Fly North Theatricals.
“After one of the shows, they told me Eliza’s story. I was fascinated ever since,” he said. “I said ‘Wow, that’s a musical.’ About a year later, Joe Anderson, the artistic director, called me up and said in so many words ‘Let’s make it a musical.’”
Bluff City Theatre’s executive director wrote in his recent blog: “Madam the musical is a totally new play we commissioned to end our 2019 season dedicated to the theme of The American Experience,” he said. “We follow the story of a group of women who, for a variety of reasons found themselves without the means to support themselves and turned to the only profession open to women like them — prostitution. Madam Eliza Haycraft rose from obscurity to become the richest woman in Missouri, much-loved by the general public, and a major philanthropist with a special emphasis on Civil War widows and orphans. Yet, despite the fact that her houses were well-frequented by the rich and powerful men who ran the city, she was shut out of polite society.”
“Madam introduces other characters who are historically based on some of the remarkable women who defied the norm to claim their place in the country at a time when they had few legitimate rights. One, an escaped slave, disguised herself as a man to fight in the Union Army. One is sister to Victoria Woodhull, candidate for president in 1872,” he continued. “In addition to being a lesson in America history, Healy’s musical is bright and lyrical. The cast is amazing. And you can be among the first to see what is sure to be a hit.”
Healy’s score features St. Louis style jazz and blues, “Madam” is directed by Sydnie Grosberg -Ronga. The musical stars Rosemary Watts as Madam, Brett Ambler as The Benefactor, and Eileen Engel, Kimmie Kidd, Cameron Pille, Gracie Sartin and Larissa White as the ladies she protected.
There are only nine performances in Hannibal. Five are left – Wednesday through Saturday. For tickets or more information, visit www.eventshannibal.com or call 573-719-3226. The show is sponsored by Harold and Kathleen Haycraft.
The first-run weekend is over, and seeing it happen has been something special.
“Realizing work on stage is quite literally turning something practically two-dimensional — many many sheets of paper — into something truly three-dimensional,” Healy said. “In any other aspect of life, suddenly perceiving a whole new dimension would be beyond life-altering. Well, that’s what realizing a work of theatre is and it hasn’t gotten old yet.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better cast and crew. Sydnie Grosberg-Ronga, in addition to being an effective and incredible director, has been an even better mentor, dramaturg, and sometimes-therapist,” he said. “Rosemary, Lari, Cameron, Kimmie, Gracie, and Eileen have all been amazing to work with— and as a millennial and member of the meme generation, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I’ve been a little starstruck getting to work with the Kazoo Kid — love ya, Brett!”
Healy considers the musical a work in progress, but the fact that Bluff City Theater encourages new and emerging work is music to his ears.
“What Joe Anderson is doing in Hannibal is remarkable. Bluff City Theatre is producing new and emerging work every year and filling houses with it. Go support them. They’re doing it right up there,” he said.
The journey has been an interesting one, but it won’t end when the show does on Aug. 24. Plans are for his company, Fly North Theatricals, to perform “Madam” in St. Louis in 2020, from Jan. 10 to Feb. 2 at the .Zack Theater, 3224 Locust St.
And that is not the only plan, either.
“I’d love for it to someday reach a wider audience — whatever that means. There are already plans for ‘Madam’ in the near future, so stay tuned,” he said.
Not much is known about the real Eliza Haycraft, but this much we do know. Haycraft, born in 1820, arrived in St. Louis from Callaway County when she was 20, cast out by her parents. She had been seduced by a lover. Destitute, she sold herself as a courtesan to support herself. When prostitution was legal, for only a brief time, in St. Louis, she became owner and manager of a brothel, doing well even though she couldn’t read or write. She bought commercial and residential property and rented it back out. She was known for helping the city’s poor, offering them help and financial aid.
In the last year of her life, the richest and most powerful men in St. Louis were hellbent on taking it all away from her, he said. She died in 1871, at age 51, leaving an estate valued at over a quarter million dollars. More than 5,000 people attended her funeral, and she was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Healy’s musical focuses on a dying Haycraft as the owner of five brothels and the richest woman in St. Louis. She hates men. She once empowered her employees by giving them the right to refuse service to anyone. She had three simple rules: Respect, Consent and Pay Up Front. Then, the passage of The Social Evils Act of 1870 made her business legitimate, but it also took away her right to say “no.”
While based loosely on real events, the musical tells the fictionalized story of her search for an heir to her sex empire while also taking a romp through first-wave feminism and sexism in America at the time of Reconstruction. It is told through the lens of Eliza’s courtesans.
“St. Louis had passed the Social Evils Ordinance, which under the guise of legalizing prostitution actually served to deny the women affected by it of many of the rights they had previously enjoyed. Eliza Haycraft was a remarkable woman — a pragmatic feminist who mistrusted men, especially those who used their positions of power to control the rights of women, the poor and the marginalized. But she knew how to operate in a male-dominated world. As she neared death, Eliza sought to purchase a burial plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery, then the largest and most prestigious in the city. The trustees of the cemetery, all clients of hers, attempted to block the purchase until Haycraft countered by suggesting that she would take her case directly to their wives. They relented,” Bluff City Theater blog said.
Healy said he likes the show’s message.
“The show at its core is about the vulnerability of aging
and the power of ‘no’ — so for now, I just hope people like it and take away
something from it,” he said.
Bluff City Theater raved: “Audience attendance is already at a record for any show we’ve produced here at Bluff City Theater…Don’t take our word for it — talk to anyone who has seen the show so far. ‘Madam’ is one of the most exciting new musicals to come along this decade.”
Healy has written five original musicals, including “The Gringo,” which was the local headline act at the St. Louis Fringe Festival last summer, and was the best-selling show in its history. Like “Madam,” it was based on a real story.
He began writing “The Gringo” in 2013 after the wrongful death of Miami teen Israel Hernandez at the hands of police. Healy had attended high school with Hernandez, although they were not acquainted. He became intrigued as details emerged in the fallout surrounding his death, especially by the stark differences between their lives.
Healy moved to St. Louis during the Ferguson riots in summer 2014. “The Gringo” then went in a different direction, instead of confronting privilege but about fighting for your home.
“The Gringo” tells the story of art bringing together a
community facing injustice and rapid gentrification. On the morning of the
biggest art festival in Miami, a beloved local street artist is wrongfully
gunned down by police. Through the lens of a successful painter, her wannabe
lover, a drug dealer, his mule, and the white boy from out of town bearing
witness to it all, “The Gringo” is about what it means to fight for your home
in spite of it all.
Through its workshop and staged reading, a funding campaign raised enough to record a full-length and fully orchestrated album.
For the premiere of ‘The Gringo,” he also directed and was the music director.
He always seems to be juggling multiple projects at once. For instance, he was contracted as the music director for “Into the Woods” this July at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA).
He currently directs the Adagio Music Company at COCA and serves as the resident music director at East Central College in Union, Mo. where he has done five mainstream shows, plus his original musical “Forgottonia” last year.
While living in his native South Florida, he composed “Anthem,” which was presented in Fort Lauderdale in 2009 and 2011, and “Translation,” which was part of the Florida Theatre Conference in 2015.
After graduating from South Broward High School in Hollywood, Fla., he became the music director for the theater department.
Beginning at age 15, he was a touring singer/songwriter and his work as a recording artist in the South Florida-based rock band, The Republik, was recognized by Billboard and College Music Journal. He recorded three full-length studio albums as a performer – Last Chance Planet, 2006; The Unexpected Answer, 2010; and We Are the Wild Things, 2012, with the last one recorded at the legendary Stratosphere Studios in New York and produced by Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls. They received radio play nationwide.
In 2017, he established Fly North Music as a St. Louis-based creative company that serves as the production house for his compositions. He now has three components: Fly North Music, Fly North Studios, and Fly North Theatricals.
In early 2018, his private vocal studio had grown, therefore Fly North Studios was born.
Then, after “The Gringo” was successful, he and his friend Bradley Rohlf decided to establish a new theater company, Fly North Theatricals this year.
They plan to promote education through performance by utilizing both their students and a local community of actors to create new, local, accessible, high-quality works of musical theatre, Healy said. “Neat, huh?”
His five original musicals have seen production at the educational, community, and professional levels.
Fly North Theatricals is planning to present “Assassins” next summer, July 4 – July 26, at the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust St., St. Louis, with auditions set for Sept.16 and 17.
Fly North Theatricals said it will be a new take on Sondheim and Weidman’s classic where our nations’ most notorious assassins gather on stage to violently pursue a twisted American Dream.
“While many characters represent historical figures, our vision for this cast requires performers that visually represent our local community, not necessarily the real people being portrayed,” the audition notice states.
Their website states: “A multiple Tony Award-winning theatrical tour-de-force, Assassins combines Sondheim’s signature blend of intelligently stunning lyrics and beautiful music with a panoramic story of our nation’s culture of celebrity and the violent means some will use to obtain it, embodied by America’s four successful and five would-be presidential assassins. Bold, original, disturbing and alarmingly funny, “Assassins” is perhaps the most controversial musical ever written.”
For more information, visit www.flynorthmusic.com
Our Questions with Colin Healy
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I’ve never really done much else. I’ve played music since I was 5 and went to performing arts schools my whole life — not really a great background to go into medicine or finance.”
2. How would your friends describe you?
“I don’t know. I annoy myself a lot but at least they don’t have to around me all the time. So, there’s that.”
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
“I don’t understand the premise of this question.”
4. What is your current obsession?
“I’m answering these questions from rehearsals for my new musical, ‘Madam!’ — so I guess that.”
5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“People are always surprised to hear that I played baseball for 10 years, which I guess is playfully insulting? Like, why are you surprised?! Do I not strike you as the model of athleticism?! (OK, I get it.)”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“My father passed away last month (July) so… that. That will certainly be informing a lot of my writing and teaching in the future (not that he didn’t when he was alive).”
7. Who do you admire most?
“Angela Brandow and Bradley Rohlf and Stephen Sondheim and William Finn.”
8. What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“Probably a bucket.”
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Eating all the food, drinking all the beer, and riding my bike (because you have to burn the calories somehow).”
10. What’s next?
Shameless plug: My new theatre company, Fly North Theatricals, kicks off its inaugural season this January at the .ZACK. Stay tuned to our social media (@flynorththeatricals) for more information.
More about Colin Healy
Birthplace: Hollywood, Fla.
Current location: St. Louis
Education: Studied acting and music education, with a focus in voice, at Florida International University.
Day job: I’m a full-time music director, composer, and voice teacher.
First job: Waiter
First role: Pharaoh in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”
Favorite roles/plays: “Man 1 in “Songs for a New World”
Dream role/play: George in “Sunday in the Park with George”
Awards/Honors/Achievements: Uhhh — I don’t know! I got a dog. He’s pretty cool. Getting featured on the cover of RFT for “The Gringo” last year was pretty neat. I make a pretty mean egg sandwich.
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Fail better.”
A song that makes you happy: Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”