by Nancy Churnin
Thirty years ago, entertainer Red Steagall told Larry Gatlin the story of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief. It’s haunted Gatlin ever since.
Now, many songs and workshops later, Gatlin will retell the story his own way, in a world premiere musical presented by Lyric Stage in Irving. The show will star the Grammy-winning Gatlin as Old Ranger, and multiple Dove- and Grammy Award-winning artist David Phelps as both Quanah and Quanah’s father, Peta Nocona.
For Gatlin, three decades was not too long to wait.
“Things happen in God’s time,” he says on the phone on the road to rehearsal at the Irving Arts Center. “I think it came about when David Phelps could do it. He’s the best singer I have ever heard.”
He also credits Steven Jones, founding producer of Lyric Stage, whom Gatlin calls “a man of vision,” for helping in the development that put the pieces together. Their friendship kicked off when the company premiered Look Homeward Honky Tonk Angel, featuring Gatlin songs, with a libretto by Anthony Dodge and Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in 2007.
Jones says he’s been looking forward to producing Quanah ever since he heard Gatlin pick up his guitar and sing a few songs from his work-in-progress during a rehearsal break for Look Homeward Honky Tonk Angel.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to produce it,” says Jones, whose company has been home to 19 world premieres before this. “Ralph Ellis, a generous supporter, heard Larry sing one of the songs. He said that it was better than any song he had ever heard in a musical. He gave us money to help further the development of the project.”
Quanah was born in the mid-19th century to Comanche chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white American who had been kidnapped by the tribe as a child and grew to embrace them as her family. Quanah ultimately surrendered to the federal government and led his people to the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was appointed chief of the Comanche nation, a title that ended with his death in 1911.
Many books have explored the Quanah Parker story. So has Hollywood, which retold a version of Cynthia Ann Parker’s abduction in the classic Western The Searchers. But it’s hard to think of a musical that not only delves into Quanah’s story but also tells it from his point of view.
Gatlin said he felt the pathos of the story viscerally, right from the start.
“I went home to Nashville that night after Red told me that story and I was so moved. I thought about settlers that had been run out of Western Europe because of their religious beliefs, running Indians off the plains and about how people have been fighting about their vision of God for so long, and how we’re still fighting about it today.”
Gatlin, who turns 69 on May 2, was born in the West Texas community of Seminole and now lives with his wife in Nashville. He teamed up with his younger brothers, Rudy and Steve, in the 1970s, in a trio called Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers and has had eight No. 1 hits and 33 songs in the Top 40, including ”All the Gold in California,” “Statues Without Hearts” and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You).”
While the initial music for Quanah came almost immediately, with some songs in the score dating to his first inspiration, it took a long time to sort through what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. It’s been challenging, he says, even though he brings longtime theatrical chops to the task. Gatlin starred on Broadway and in a national tour of The Will Rogers Follies that was performed at Dallas Summer Musicals and Bass Hall in Casa Mañana. He toured with The Civil War, the Musical and Follies and created the musicals Alive and Well in 1994 and Texas Flyer in 1998.
In fact, there’s little question that Gatlin would like to see Quanah have a future after Lyric Stage or that he anticipates it may warrant more work.
“Everyone who does musical theater wants to go to Broadway and the West End in London. But you eat an elephant one bit at a time. First we’re going to take care of this production. I think the show has legs. But we’re going to see what it’s about here, and what changes need to be made.”