When the “twelve angry men” movie released in 1957, its actors were all middle-aged white men. At a time when audiences expect plays to portray the world as it is, can these angry men still speak to us?
As they prepare for Saturday’s world premiere at the Latté Da Theatre, the makers say they never doubted the play’s relevance – which originated as a TV movie in 1954, written by Reginald Rose . Composer Michael Holland and writer David Simpatico believe the story gained urgency as they wrote. But, like all new musicals, Latté Da’s “Twelve Angry Men” faced challenges.
“Angry Twelve” who?
To create roles for a wider range of actors, the melodrama about jurors deciding the fate of a Spanish-speaking defendant accused of murder, was often performed with both men and women, renamed “Twelve Angry People”. But one of the first things that was clear about the musical was that men would remain men.
“The Rose estate wouldn’t allow us to explore gender in this way and, to be honest, I think for good reason. The play is as much about toxic masculinity as anything, about what sons inherit of their fathers, and this is a justice system built by men,” director Peter Rothstein said. “Women shouldn’t be forced to take responsibility for what the play puts forward. “
Although altering the genders was discussed, altering the late 1950s frame was not. Simpatico and Holland have stuck with it since they wrote their first draft over Skype in 2012 (it was commissioned by a theater that didn’t produce it).
“It’s a classic because it’s about human behavior and truth. [It] make people sit down and talk. It’s been done a million times because it’s good,” Simpatico said.
The creators always knew they wanted to be more inclusive than the film. This conversation became specific after Latté Da got involved four years ago. One question was whether to specify race in the script or leave that up to the interpretation of the artists.
“I said, ‘We have to have cultural specificity through the cast of characters, in that juror number 8, the Henry Fonda [in the 1957 movie] or Jack Lemon [in a 1997 TV remake] role, couldn’t be a white actor. We have enough racism shows with white heroes,” Rothstein said.
In Latté Da’s “Twelve,” that role is played by Curtis Bannister, who is black. Simpatico said it helped imagine specific actors as he wrote, even incorporating their experiences with racism and injustice. The cast includes four black actors and a Korean American, whose characters discuss their backgrounds — including, for example, a conversation in which men contrast what it’s like to emigrate here from Europe or Mexico. A juror played by T. Mychael Rambo provides an opportunity to examine how aging can make one feel invisible.
“I think it’s impossible to separate racism from toxic masculinity from nationalism from xenophobia from ageism,” Rothstein said. “It’s not that everyone is guilty of all, but everything is connected.”
make him sing
When Holland was approached about “Twelve Angry Men,” he said, “I immediately heard those late ’50s jazz sounds. The Hi-Los are a big influence. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross – that kind of edgy, vibrant, aggressive sound.”
“That’s a lot of notes,” musical director Denise Prosek joked. “There’s always an unstable, super interesting and evocative chord structure. Once everyone hears what this music is going to be like, they’re going to be like, ‘I want to do this!’ It’s kind of a dream to work on.”
The 50s era suggested not only the apparently improvised sound, but also the composition of the band. Prosek put together a guitar/drums/bass/trumpet/piano combo like the one that could have played the blue note in the 1950s.
“Michael keeps using the word ‘scrappy’. He wants it to sound like they make a living out of clubs,” Prosek said.
The songs nod to musical theater as well as jazz. But just as they sound different from conventional musicals, the question of who sings and when receives a different answer. There are songs but, until the end, they are scattered throughout the dialogue, creating tension between what is sung and what is said.
That tension suits the play, which is largely about having the courage to change your mind, Prosek said.
“Musical theater doesn’t always lend itself very well to nuance. But Michael and David managed to create nuanced songs. It’s not a huge emotional piece in the sense that you’d need a song like ‘One Day More” from ‘The Miz,'” Prosek said.
About the speech
“Bradley Greenwald [who plays a juror] said the other day during a rehearsal: “It’s a lot like ‘1776’ in that everyone knows the result. We are not necessarily to know that’s exactly but, chances are, 20 minutes later you can probably guess the ending. But it’s more of a rhetoric,” Rothstein said.
The creators said it was exciting to participate in difficult and in-depth conversations about race, justice and empathy. They attribute the hope to Rose’s original script, which emphasizes that people with differing opinions can come together, listen, and come to an agreement.
“Jurors all bring their own biases and experiences and that’s just who they are,” Prosek said. “At the same time, through discussion and facts, they are able to change their minds, depending on what is presented in front of them. That’s a big lesson that we all need.”
“Twelve Angry Men”
Who: By Michael Holland and David Simpatico. Directed by Peter Rothstein.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 17.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13 Ave. NE., Deputies.
Protocol: Masks and proof of vaccination (or negative COVID test) required.
Tickets: $35-$55, 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.