SAVANNAH REP is serving up a hot slice of Americana.
For their spring production, the theatre troupe will bring “a celebration of life, love, Dolly Parton, and catfish” in the Tony-nominated, Southern-steeped musical Pump Boys and Dinettes.
As opening night approaches, the Savannah Rep cast welcomed a very special visitor to their Playshop: Pump Boys and Dinettes author, composer, and Tybee Island resident Jim Wann.
Back when he was a fresh graduate of University of North Carolina, Wann and his friends hung out at an old gas station. The crew worked on their cars in a shop that was “casual in the repair department,” Wann remembers.
As they replaced shocks and handled simple repairs, the talented friends would sing and write songs with one another. Little did Wann know, those late nights would become a source of inspiration for his most well-known work.
“It became a kind of touchstone for me when I moved to New York and started my career,” Wann says. “I had fond memories of making memories at that gas station.”
Pump Boys and Dinettes traces back to the days when Wann and his writing partner were gigging at The Cattleman restaurant in New York City.
“With five nights a week and four hours to fill, we did some traditional and original material,” Wann recalls.
“One day, my partner came in with this outfit on—a dark blue twill shirt and matching pants he got at JC Penney’s. He was really pleased with himself for having discovered this unique look for New York, so I thought I’d get one. We said, ‘We’re guys that work at a gas station.’”
In time, the original Dinettes, a duo writing a two-woman show about a woman-owned and operated Southern diner, started guesting with the pump boys. The Dinettes’ restaurant was placed right next to the boys’ filling station, and the show grew.
“We were just a band for a while,” says Wann. “Then we kept getting more and more gigs off-Broadway. We started to get more theatrical in the sense that we were writing elaborate song introductions about the characters and life around the diner.”
One particularly complimentary review brought in a constant flow of audience members, and before Wann and his collaborators knew it, Pump Boys and Dinettes was the talk of the town.
“We had a New York audience that was really enthusiastic about this Southern sound and Southern material,” says Wann. “All the music is related to some form of Southern roots music—folk, gospel, blues, country. That’s the style we all felt comfortable with, so that’s what we were creating.”
Pump Boys and Dinettes premiered on Broadway on Feb. 4, 1982, starring Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Foley, Mark Hardwick, and John Schimmel. That year, it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical (the cast even performed on the award show’s broadcast) and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Outstanding Lyrics, and Outstanding Music.
The show blazed the trail for many future shows and performers—just ask actor-musician Ryan McCurdy, who stars as Jim in Savannah Rep’s Pump Boys and Dinettes.
“Jim Wann is so respected in our community,” McCurdy divulges. “In the ‘80s, that was the era of the big Andrew Lloyd Webber shows...it’s so nice to hear that a band could stand onstage and sing country songs in that time.”
A former Savannah theatre scene fixture, McCurdy followed his creative pursuits to New York three years ago. In that time, he has started a reading series that connects playwrights and directors, worked as an actor-musician on numerous projects, and starred in the Tony-winning hit musical Once.
A Tony-winning musical that features actors playing their own instruments onstage, the show highlights the talents of actor-musicians in the way Pump Boys imagined twenty years ago.
“Once would not exist if [Wann] hadn’t shown us how it worked,” McCurdy says.
While he has thrived as a talented multi-instrumentalist and actor, McCurdy is welcoming the challenges that Pump Boys and Dinettes presents.
“The music is really well-written and none of it is superfluous. This has been a really fun but serious challenge musically. There are very defined personas inside the show, and you have to be super-honest with what the characters need to be in the given moment,” he says.
“I have a rock background—the gig life is totally different. You can do whatever you want and defend it under the banner of music. When doing theatre, the question is always, ‘Why is the character doing it like this?’”
“Someone said in rehearsals yesterday, ‘In my experience, there’s nothing like playing music together to bring a cast together,’” Wann recounts. “I think, in this show, the casts bond really well. People onstage start to feel like a family, and I think that when you sense they’re enjoying what they do together, that communicates something to the audience.”
That audience connection is paramount in Pump Boys, a show that features highly relatable, everyday characters.
“I always felt our show had something of the spirit of celebrating the lives of everyday Americans,” Wann says. “And it still seems to hold up. Young people are taking it over and making it their own, sometimes in a unique and different way.”
The show is timeless because its writers didn’t create the material to be timely, even though the songs are over 30 years old.
“It’s never gone out of style,” says Wann. “And Savannah Rep has a very unique take on the show with more adventurous casting then you see most of the time.”
“It’s a young, diverse, multigenerational cast, a real fresh look,” McCurdy adds.
Thanks to that timelessness, Pump Boys and Dinettes is still paving the way for actor-musicians like McCurdy.
“If you told me ten years ago that I would be by making money from playing guitar and piano onstage, I would have thought that was an insane concept,” McCurdy laughs.
“But that’s how people perceive me now. And this show is smack-dab between a revue and a traditional story-based musical. It’s completely and utterly fun.”