Steve Martin and Edie Brickell team up for Broadway-bound musical

December 21, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
"Bright Star," a new musical set in North Carolina in 1920s and '40s, involves hidden identities, tragedy, love lost and found and a bluegrass-style band, complete with banjo. Its creators, famed entertainer Steve Martin and veteran singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, join Jeffrey Brown to discuss collaboration and old fashioned sweetness.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: Cue the banjo, as two leading entertainers make their first foray into musical theater.

We go back to Jeff, who has our look at the Broadway-bound “Bright Star.”

JEFFREY BROWN: A good story to tell and to sing, that’s the idea behind “Bright Star,” a new musical set in North Carolina in the 1940s with flashbacks to the 1920’s.

Based on a true story, it involves hidden identities, youthful coming of age, tragedy along with humor, and, of course, love lost and found. But unlike most musicals, this one features a bluegrass-style band complete with banjo.

Now at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center after an initial run in San Diego, it’s the creation of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

STEVE MARTIN, “Bright Star”: We both grew up on musicals. We love their emotion and their melodies, and we got this brain — harebrained idea to write one ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s make a show.

EDIE BRICKELL, “Bright Star”: In the tradition of the ones that we love so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t come to it with much experience, or any experience.

EDIE BRICKELL: No, just a great love. And I think, if you pay attention to what you love and try to write the way that you love, then maybe you will come up with something that you love and others will love as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Martin, now 70, is one of the most acclaimed entertainers of our era, a comedian, actor, writer, and banjo-playing musician.

Edie Brickell, 49, a veteran singer-songwriter, first rose to fame in the late 1980s for her work with the folk rock band New Bohemians. The two collaborated on the 2013 Grammy-winning album “Love Has Come for You.” A follow-up, “So Familiar,” the basis for “Bright Star” came out this fall.

STEVE MARTIN: And we have loved really every minute of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Kennedy Center recently, I asked how the collaboration works.

EDIE BRICKELL: Every way you can imagine. But it started out with Steve sending me his banjo tunes. And I would just walk around my kitchen and sing to them, until I — until a song emerged. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Just walk around in the kitchen?

EDIE BRICKELL: It was like somebody turned a projector on in my mind. I would see images. And all I had to do was say what it is that I saw and then make it rhyme and have rhythm and melody.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you got to have a musical theater with a banjo in it?

STEVE MARTIN: My part of the song was written on the banjo. And the banjo lays out a certain way for the melodies to be played. And — but I also like the sound of the banjo for this musical, because I find the banjo very evocative. It’s not a bluegrass musical at all.

When you combine the banjo with the cello and the violin and the viola, you have the punctuation of the banjo and these long, long notes of the strings, and I think it’s a really good sound.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it about the banjo that you love?

STEVE MARTIN: I find it to be almost two things simultaneously, very emotional and melancholy and, at the same time, hard-driving and representing incredible joy.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was it like for you to put these songs into the characters’ voices?

EDIE BRICKELL: It’s more fun for me, because I have watched people all my life. I’m not a very good dinner companion, because it’s hard for me to pay attention to the person in front of me. I’m always looking at other tables and making up stories about people based on their body language.

And I just have always done that. So, it’s great to be given the opportunity to let that side of my imagination come forth and express what I believe people are feeling and thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Martin has written plays before, but a musical, the mix of dialogue and singing, how to convey the story is a different matter.

STEVE MARTIN: The rule that we actually went in is, you can’t have two characters fall in love and talk about it, and then sing about the same thing. That’s really been fun to do. It’s really about listening to the audience and trying to fathom what they’re understanding, what they’re going through, what they’re liking, and what they’re maybe bored by.

JEFFREY BROWN: This idea of what’s conveyed through language, through words, dialogue, and what’s conveyed through the songs, so, falling in love should happen during the song?

EDIE BRICKELL: Well, I always loved that you are 16 going on 17 song and that moment that they’re…

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Sound of Music.”

EDIE BRICKELL: Yes. I love it. That’s the one that breaks my heart, because it’s so beautiful and so sweet. I love it.

And so I woke up one morning realizing, we need a song like that. We need our 16 going on 17 moment. And so those little epiphanies helped direct the sense of writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is much tenderness in “Bright Star.” It has a jarring tragedy at its core, but also an almost old- fashioned sweetness.

A lot of our culture today is not sweet. It’s sort of crass and crude, and it’s certainly loud and fast.

STEVE MARTIN: I think Edie and I think alike in that regard, is that want to — wanted to make something that was touching. And we have a very — that’s not to say it’s saccharine, because we have a very shocking ending to act one.

I think we both feel that the shock value through language is really not that shocking anymore at all.

EDIE BRICKELL: I have grown weary of the vulgarity in our culture, and I wanted to respect the innocence that I think still exists and is alive in all of us, just to honor it again and revisit it, with joy and adulthood. I don’t think adulthood means that you have to get crude and vulgar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Comedian, actor, novelist, playwright, musician, now musical theater. Is this — is it a restless mind or is it…

STEVE MARTIN: No, it’s just — I think it’s just one thing leads to another. If you write a play, you think, well, maybe I can write a play with music, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: After its run at the Kennedy Center, “Bright Star” heads to Broadway in February.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown.