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Musical looks at plight of small farmers
By Bill Buell, Gazette Reporter
Published: Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jay Kerr and Al Budde may not own Broadway the way Rodgers and Hammerstein did, but in Washington County they are making some very good music together.

Kerr, a product of the New York City theater scene who moved to upstate New York in 2001, and Budde, a long-time Salem resident who’s worked in the advertising business for 25 years, have joined forces a second time to write “Corn! The Musical.” The show opens Friday night at 8 at Fort Salem Theater, the venue purchased by Kerr in 2007, and will run through July 19.

“Farmers and their farms are in trouble in Washington County and all around the state, so a lot of people in our area are going to see themselves in this play,” said Kerr, a voice teacher, musician and director/producer who spent much of his life in New York before he and his wife, Lynne, bought a home in Hebron just east of Salem eight years ago. Going to the source “We went out to farm meetings and talked to farmers about the problems they’re facing. These issues are very relevant to what’s going on today. It’s a serious play.
It’s not a comedy.”

Kerr has been working in musical theater for years, and in 2008 teamed up with Budde to write Breakfast Epiphanies. Budde had already written the play when Kerr first saw it, and Kerr liked it so much he decided to make it a musical and produce it at his theater.“I read what Al said was a mystery, and I told him, ‘you wrote a musical without the music,’ ” said Kerr. “The climax of each scene was where a song should be, so I told him, ‘We only do musicals at Fort Salem. I’m going to have to write some music for it.’”

While Kerr was a musical theater veteran in New York, the play was only Budde’s second. His first had come a year earlier when he wrote For Sale M for a local community theater, the Footlighters, to help raise money for the Salem Volunteer Fire Department. “It was mostly born out of frustration that we couldn’t find a good play that we wanted to do,” said Budde. “So I wrote a comedy about a town going broke and how it was trying to pay off a bond. It was well received. Then last year Breakfast Epiphanies became a murder mystery with music. There really wasn’t enough music to call it a musical, but Jay did a great job writing some music for the show. Now
we’re doing this Corn!, and I feel like it’s the first time we’re really collaborating right from the beginning of a project. I did the book and Jay wrote the music and the lyrics.”

While “new” and “original” are typically exciting and positive words in the theater community, they can also be a bit scary. “Yeah, it’s a thrill but it’s also quite frightening,” said Budde. “My wife won’t evenread the script. But it’s a real thrill to see your words performed on stage, and see how the whole creative process comes together. The director, the choreographer. They all bring their own piece to the table.” Budde’s son Tyler, a senior in the theater program at American University in Washington D.C., is directing the play, and Tom Flagg, in the midst of a run on Broadway in The Fantasticks, will take a break to perform in Fort Salem.

Also in the cast are Sue Cicarelli Caputo and Shannon Rafferty, two popular Capital Region actresses who have been drawing rave reviews lately, Ciccarelli Caputo for her performance in the New York State Theatre Institute production of Philadelphia Story, and Rafferty for her turn as Anne Frank in Yours, Anne, also at NYSTI. Cicarrelli Caputo has performed at Fort Salem on five previous occasions, while this will be Rafferty’s first. Both realize the risks in taking on a brand new play. “I have been involved in a couple of original works in the past and it is true, it’s a work in progress and you never know for sure if your version is going to be a crowd pleaser,” said Cicarelli Caputo . “That being said, I really love the music and the story line of this particular piece and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

“I love doing new shows and getting the opportunity to originate a role,” said Rafferty. “When you do a well-known musical you might tend to copy what’s already been done, but with an original work you’re always finding out a lot of new things about your character. You’re the one that’s building the character.” Cicarelli Caputo heads into the project with plenty of confidence in Kerr, with whom she’s worked on a number of occasions, while Rafferty, encouraged by Ciccarelli Caputo, also decided to take the risk.

“Sue told me about the audition, and I had another friend who’s performed at Fort Salem before so I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about the place,” said Rafferty. “I love the script. There is some comedy in it, but it’s a play with a strong message about things that are happening to farmers in real life.”

The story is set around a fictional farm that was founded in 1784. Flagg plays the farmer who dies at the beginning of the show — he’s brought back in flashbacks —and Cicarelli Caputo plays his wife. Rafferty is the fiancee of the son, who doesn’t necessarily care that much about farming. “The play was inspired by the number of farms around Salem that appear to be reaching the end of the line,” said Budde. “In the old days, the eldest son would just take over, but these days the sons aren’t that interested in farming. So, what do you do? Do you rent out the land, sell it to developers? It’s a play that explores what happens when all the family members have their own ideas about what to do.”

“I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t hear about a farm that might have to close,” said Kerr. “So we created this patriarch that drops dead at the beginning of the show and we have to see what his wife and children will do with the place. Do they use the land to grow things? Do they turn it into condos? What are they going to do?”