Younger observers might wonder what all the fuss is about
By Richard Ades
September 16, 2009
Is Woodstock's 40th anniversary worth all the publicity it's been
getting from the media? The answer probably depends on how old you are.
Dante Wehe and Steve Guyer are, respectively, the youngest and oldest
people involved in Shadowbox's new musical about the August 1969
music festival, Woodstock: Back to the Garden. Ask them about
Woodstock's status as a generation's defining moment, and you'll get
two very different answers.
Wehe, a 19-year-old guitarist who graduated from Fort Hayes in the
spring, had little to say except that he knew about the three-day
festival because he'd studied it in school.
"We had a whole class on it, a history class," he said. Woodstock, in
other words, is simply one more historical tidbit he'd had to learn
about, like Appomattox or the Treaty of Versailles.
But Guyer, the musical's 55-year-old director, said Woodstock had
played a crucial role in his life even though he wasn't there. And he
was sure other baby boomers felt the same way.
"That event was the thing that we all kind of pointed to and said,
'That's what defines us as the hippies that we are," he said,
speaking on the phone last week.
It's likely that Guyer, who was 14 when the festival brought half a
million people to a meadow in upstate New York, needed to define
himself more than most. At the time, he'd just been hit by what he
described as a "real massive culture shock."
When he was getting ready to enter high school, his family moved from
Seven Mile, Ohio, to Rock Hill, S.C. There, he found himself in a
larger and more diverse community than the one he'd leftand a more
divided one, as racial integration wouldn't arrive in South Carolina
schools for another three years.
"I was in this very strange transition personallytrying to
understand the difference in lifestyle and personality of the people
that I was suddenly surrounded bywhen (Woodstock) happened."
Guyer said the celebration of peace, love and harmony gave him an
identity to hang onto, even in the midst of an unfamiliar Southern
environment. What's more, he said, it helped to put him on the career
path he still follows today.
Though rock 'n' roll is now a central force in his life, Guyer said
he'd grown up in a conservative religious household and didn't
discover the music until he came across a transistor radio at the age
of 13 and began listening to AM rock stations.
"So that piqued my interest," he said. "And then when the Woodstock
festival happened, it kind of ratcheted the energy a notch or two
higher, and I decided I really wanted to be in a band."
So Guyer and other students formed a band, one that stayed together
until the advent of disco and club DJs put it out of business about a
decade later. He then went on to jobs in other fields, but in 1988 he
finally returned to show business, his first love, by launching Shadowbox.
And it's all, according to Guyer, due to Woodstock.
Despite the lasting effect Woodstock has had on his life, Guyer
admitted it was just a coincidence that Shadowbox planned an original
musical around the festival on its 40th anniversary. He and the rest
of the staff didn't even realize the anniversary was here until after
they'd come up with the idea, he said.
"You'd think we would be aware, but we were not," said Guyer.
Troupe member Jimmy Mak, who was assigned to write the script, said
the project was tackled in an attempt to duplicate the success of
Forbidden Planet, a previous Shadowbox "jukebox musical"i.e., one
that uses cover tunes to tell its story. The troupe also targeted
Woodstock because the topic would give its house band, BillWho?, the
chance to play the rock music that is its specialty, he said.
So Mak and others began researching the festival and soon had a
"It's like, 'Oh, my God, it's the 40th anniversarythis is the
perfect time to do it,'" Mak said.
Set during the festival itselfrather than exploring events that led
up to it, like the current movie Taking Woodstockthe musical ties
together a host of songs from Woodstock with the help of Rodney
Benton, a fictitious reporter played by Mak.
"I based him on an article that I read about a real New York Times
reporter named Bernard Collier who came to the concert, stayed all
three days and kept trying to give the story a positive spin, but the
Times wouldn't do it," Mak said.
The Times insisted on reporting about the traffic jams, mud and other
festival-related problems, Mak said, though Collier wanted to write
about the good spirits and cooperation that kept the potential
disaster from turning into an actual disaster. Benton, the
Collier-based character, will go through a similar struggle in the
course of the show, he said.
While the musical will center on the fictitious reporter, it also
will include real-life individuals such as Max Yasgur, owner of the
farm that hosted the festival, Abbie Hoffman, a leftist activist who
showed up at the event, and various musicians who took part.
"So in that regard, we're hoping that it'll give it a little bit more
of a documentary feel as well as just (being) a normal musical," Mak said.
Whether or not Woodstock's 40th anniversary deserves all the
publicity it's received, there's no getting around the fact that it's
received an awful lot. Is there a danger that Shadowbox's musical is
opening just as the public has reached its Woodstock saturation point?
Not a chance, said Guyer, predicting that all the publicity
surrounding the anniversary "will absolutely be a bonus."
Still, there are dangers in trying to re-create an event this
prominent, he said, noting that even people who couldn't attend the
actual festival have likely seen the subsequent concert documentary.
"Every blessing comes with a curse, and the curse in this particular
case probably is people are going to have extraordinary expectations
of this show that we have to try and reach," Guyer said.
That is, people will have extraordinary expectations if they're old
enough to have memories of Woodstock. People of Wehe's age might have
lower expectations because they know the festival only as an event
they once studied in history class.
Indeed, Wehe isn't even daunted by the fact that he's been entrusted
with one of the festival's signature moments, guitarist Jimi
Hendrix's solo rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." It was an
innovative performance that filled the morning air with amplifier
feedback to symbolize the national anthem's wartime imagery.
Guyer said he's excited by the Hendrix number, saying that Wehe will
not only sound the part but look it as well. "With the costume, you
just feel like it's Jimi Hendrix standing up there," he said. "It's
an amazing moment."
But to hear Wehe tell it, re-creating this moment in rock 'n' roll
history is no big deal.
"It's not the hardest thing to play," the teenager said. "It's just enjoyable."
Woodstock: Back to the Garden will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday (sold
out) and continue at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 15 at
Shadowbox, 164 Easton Town Center. Tickets are $30, $20 for students
and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxcabaret.com.