Climb the Mountains

Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Azy Scotten Photography

Move over Alexander Hamilton. There’s a new historical figure who is making the leap out of high school social studies textbooks and onto the stage.

Naturalist John Muir, one of the early founders of the National Parks System, gets the star treatment in “Mountain Days”—a musical that has been around for many years but is finally making its debut in the Valley in concert form courtesy of ProMusica Arizona Chorale and Orchestra.

The non-profit arts organization will present the concert three times in March, beginning with a free public performance 7 p.m. Friday, March 22 at Murphy Park Amphitheater in Glendale.

“John Muir is significant as being the person who went to Teddy Roosevelt and said, ‘We need to preserve the beauty of our country,’” says Patti Graetz, interim artistic director of ProMusica Arizona Chorale and Orchestra.

Acclaimed Phoenix composer Craig Bohmler initially developed the musical for the Willows Theatre Company in the Bay Area of Northern California at the request of the theater’s artistic director Richard Elliott. Tony-nominated playwright Mary Bracken Phillips wrote the script and the lyrics for the project, which was conceived as an epic, outdoor production.

ProMusica’s performances will differ from past fully-costumed productions of “Mountain Days” in that they will be concert versions, enhanced by multimedia visuals of our nation’s natural beauty as opposed to props.

“[Craig] is really dedicated to building awareness for these historical characters who, in some ways, are almost forgotten,” says Graetz, noting that Bohmler developed three other musicals about the western United States—“Sacagawea,” “The Haunting of Winchester” and “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

“Mountain Days” traces Muir’s life from his youth to his death on Christmas Eve, 1914. Bohmler made it a point to delve into everything that formed the historical figure and his ideas, including a bad relationship with his father and his inspiring marriage to Louie Strentzil. It also illuminates Muir’s famous 1,000-mile walk from Wisconsin to Florida, his travels to San Francisco and his discovery of Yosemite National Park.

“‘Mountain Days’ is grand in scale and the music reflects that,” Bohmler says. “It is very symphonic with a large chorus and many characters. I have musicalized Yosemite Falls, a rainbow and a dying valley. I have tried to create a sound that reflects the vast and awesome beauty of the American West.”

Muir was a prolific writer, having kept diaries and journals for nearly everything he did over the course of his life. Therefore, his travels and his ideas were easy to capture and put into a production that is an authentic representation of his significance.

“Much of John’s lines in the show are actually from his writings,” Graetz says. “The words to the songs that he sings come from his writings as well. They’ve been crafted into lyrics but the concept of what he was trying to convey has been preserved through those words.”

That is not to say that “Mountain Days” is strictly an educational experience, though. Phillips’ script exploits the dry personality for which Muir was known to ratchet up the entertainment value of the show.

“It sort of capitalizes on his lack of sense of humor as actually being humorous,” Graetz says. “He’s got people around him that help to move the story along. All the ladies during that time were really swooning over John Muir. It’s very fun.”

Award-winning actor Rusty Ferracane, who portrays Muir in the production, credits Phillips with capturing not only the historical figure’s significance but also his essence. He adds that Muir’s writings give insight into his feelings about nature more than they give a glimpse into his psyche.

“I know [Mary] was a bit frustrated because she needed to create an interesting and entertaining story complete with conflict, dramatic tension and humor but all she had available to her were Muir’s letters and very dry, historical information,” Ferracane explains. “With those dry documents, she was able to create a well-rounded character who is very human, filled with great passion, integrity, self-doubt, courage, humor and love.”

Graetz says ProMusica’s chorale and orchestra members are also falling in love with “Mountain Days”—and not just for its beautiful music and fun story. This concert is the organization’s first foray into the musical format, offering members a change of pace and a chance to grow in their abilities as musicians.

“They are used to just holding music in their hands and singing a song,” Graetz explains. “Then it’s done and they’re on to the next song. For this, there is a lot of dialogue that happens in the midst of the songs. There are cues to learn and other things that are unique to a musical. So this stretches our members to do something a little bit different.”

ProMusica’s members are also eagerly anticipating the show’s premiere at Murphy Park in Glendale as it, too, will broaden their musical abilities. The organization previously presented an outdoor Broadway and jazz concert at the Carefree Sundial but it has never had the opportunity to perform in an amphitheater until now.

ProMusica received a $10,000 grant from Glendale for the concert through the city’s Centerline Arts and Culture Initiative, which aims to motivate, increase and support free cultural events and performances to enrich the experiences of Glendale residents and increase foot traffic in the area.

ProMusica will also present ticketed performances of “Mountain Days” 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23 at North Valley Christian Academy in Phoenix and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24 at American Lutheran Church in Sun City.

Ferracane encourages audiences around the Valley to attend one of the performances, noting the show is a truly terrific piece of entertainment but also an inspiring tale of a man whose contributions were absolutely crucial to our country.

“I’m embarrassed to say that when Craig took on this project many years ago and told me about it, I had no idea who John Muir was,” Ferracane says. “The breadth of his work and the legacy he left behind is inspiring. As someone who also loves nature and revels in it as much as possible, I am grateful John Muir helped to protect our natural wonders so that I and generations after me can ‘climb the mountains.’”

“Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical in Concert”
Friday, March 22 | 7 p.m. | Murphy Park Amphitheater, 7230 W. Cheryl Dr., Glendale | Free | 623-326-5172 |
pmaz.org

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