“It was a real labor of love for me,” Salovey said. “His was the music I grew up on. It really speaks to me. I had some contact and encouragement from Pete and his family. I watched every video I could find of him performing.”
He wrote the text, gathered actors and musicians and started rehearsals for “A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song to Sing!” in early December —- only to have to change directions in midstream. While Seeger, now 92, had approved an early treatment, he changed his mind after reading the full script.
“He felt his life didn’t warrant a whole musical,” said Salovey, “and I had to respect that. But by that time, we had a great cast and we were excited about the songs —- songs of protest and change that reflect Pete’s time. We felt we could put something together.”
So Salovey went back to the drawing board and found that using the music of change as his material gave him plenty of inspiration. He gathered songs from many different generations, such as songs from the Revolutionary War and the textile worker strikes of 1911. The 25 songs include “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” “We Shall Overcome” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The text quotes speeches from Allen Ginsberg, Henry David Thoreau, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.
“After the shock of having to change gears, we moved in a very focused, inspired direction,” he said. “We wanted to feature music that reflects what’s happening culturally. The kind of music that I’ve been reflecting on for a long, long time.”
Another element that played into Salovey’s new direction came from a conversation with Seeger’s grandson, Tao. Tao had visited an Occupy rally in Las Vegas and listened to the people shouting. He told Salovey that if people had been singing, the response would be totally different.
“So he put together a rally with Pete and Arlo Guthrie,” Salovey said. “A policeman came up to him, and Tao expected to be cuffed. Instead, the policeman shook his hand and said thank you. I could see then that no matter the time, music brings people together. As a culture, we don’t sing together as much as we used to.”
Ultimately, that’s what made Seeger’s music so special to Salovey.
“These songs are about the betterment of society,” he said. “That shaped my life and it’s always guided my approach to theater. It’s in songs like these that I feel art can play such an important role in helping people. That’s what I want the audience to remember. I also want people to remember that they love to sing.”