CEDAR FALLS – With her tart tongue, Texas twang and quick-witted quips, Ann Richards burst onto the national stage as the keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The state treasurer of Texas later became the state’s 45th governor, serving one term. Throughout her life, she was an outspoken advocate for women and minorities and gay rights.
When Richards turned 60, she got a motorcycle license. Texas Monthly commemorated the event with a cover photo superimposing Richards’ head on the body of a woman wearing a fringed jacket riding a Harley-Davidson. “White Hot Mama” was the headline.
A poster of that magazine cover inspired Rebecca Burkhardt and Cynthia Goatley to write a new musical, “Just Ann: A New Musical about the Life and Times of Texas Governor Ann Richards.”
The musical’s premiere is Thursday through Sunday at the Oster Regent Theatre, produced by Cedar Falls Community Theater. The show is being directed by Mitra M. Sadeghpour, University of Northern Iowa associate professor of music and opera.
“I thought it would be fun to write a show about her. I’d heard Richard’s speech, but I had no idea she was so funny,” says Burkhardt, a UNI music professor and conductor of the Northern Iowa Symphony Orchestra.
Goatley describes Richards as “large-than-life.”
Beyond what has been published about Richards in the national media, the pair decided to explore Richards’ archives, traveling to University of Texas at Austin in 2008. About that time, they discovered that actress Holland Taylor was working on a one-woman show about the governor, who died in 2006.
Undeterred, Goatley and Burkhardt kept working. “We knew our show was going to be a musical and very different than a play. Richards left reams of material in her archives — her children’s baby pictures, letters from high school boyfriends, all kinds of personal and professional correspondence, travel journals that she began and never finished, essays, speeches and Post-it notes attached to correspondence. Those Post-it notes, that’s where she jotted down funny things,” says Goatley, professor of theater at the University of Northern Iowa.
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In the musical, Richards tells her story as “a legendary campfire cook, a beautiful ballroom dancer, a bossy momma, just as good at ‘at-the-moment quips’ as at telling great stories, a reluctant hunter, great laugher, fine canoeist and former drunk.”
Rather than telling the story in strict chronological order, it flows more organically with Richards represented at three different ages, and sometimes fluidly moving back and forth between the Anns. Kristin Teig Torres plays Richards in later life. In total, there are 13 cast members playing multiple roles.
Burkhardt composed the music. “Songs pop up in the show and have to fit into scenes. I knew there would be funny or tender moments that would be revealed in song, so I built it from the inside out.”
The musical has undergone several rewritings and revisions. It’s had two readings at UNI and a third in Santa Fe, N.M.
Choreographer is Mandy Masmar of Orchesis Dance Company. Sound and lights are being set by Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center designers. Burkhardt will lead a five-piece combo on stage that has a “musical theater sound with a country kick.”
“This isn’t just a historical or biographical story. Ann Richards was an inspiring person, and man, she had guts. We wanted to make her real and expand on what inspired us,” explains Goatley.
Both Goatley and Burkhardt praise the support they’ve received from Cedar Falls Community Theatre, the Oster Regent Theatre, UNI and the community.
Plans are to begin taking the musical into regional theaters, particularly throughout the Southwest.