Heisman, a Musical?
Show: Heisman, A New Musical Writer/Director: Garland Atkins Musical Writer: Karen Pressley
Having been sent an e-mail link from a friend who knows my affinity for Georgia Tech history, I was intrigued to learn that "Heisman, A New Musical" was being shown at Queens University of Charlotte. Immediately I jumped on the opportunity, realizing that a play entitled "Heisman, A New Musical" may not last long enough for me to see in a different city, and hastily began plotting a road trip. I decided to call the phone number listed at heisman.homestead.com to make sure that it hadn't been cancelled in the week that it had been posted online, and was quickly answered by a man purporting to be the writer, Garland Atkins.
I asked him whether or not he had ever tried to get the play shown in Atlanta, since according to his website, the brunt of the play occurred at the Georgia School of Technology, where John Heisman coached for 19 years. He notified me that he was completely rebuffed by the staff members of the Ferst Theater that he talked to, implying that there would be no interest for such a play at Tech.
When he found out that I planned on driving from Atlanta to see his play, he offered me free tickets to anyone I could bring with me. When I only found one daring soul to go with me, I invited my aunt and cousin near Charlotte to meet me there to use the remaining tickets.
The reason that Queens University hosted the play for two weekend showings was that one of their graduates, Mrs. Karen Pressley, penned the original songs for the play. One such song was "The Football and the Play's the Thing," heard in a dream sequence when Heisman falls asleep to discuss the similarities of football and acting with the then-deceased William Shakespeare. This scene would be written out if I made a revision, along with the treatment of 1910s Georgia racial situation. Those scenes were a detriment to the football, school, and family relation aspects of the play, which were actually needed to make the plot flow.
On the good side, the story of Heisman's coming to Tech on the heels of 11 consecutive losing seasons and a 73-0 thrashing by Clemson were factually accurate. Atkins also portrayed Tech legends "Uncle Heinie" and Lyman Hall in a favorable light, as they were directly responsible for hiring the coaching legend. He also threw in tidbits of information like Margaret Mitchell (of Gone With the Wind fame) writing for the Atlanta Journal. There were old Coca-Cola jingles used during the play which spiced up the musical numbers, which included such timeless hits as "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and "Shine on Harvest Moon."
But the heart of the play is the score created by Pressley for the musical, including "Southern Hospitality" and "Read All About It," but headlined by the aforementioned "The Football and the Play's the Thing." An excerpt from this song, featured in a recent ESPN: The Magazine article, has Heisman singing, "I shall don quill and paper/Thou don helmet and pad/If pen is mightier than the sword/Then perchance I've just been had." And although the singing is good, there's no way to make a dream sequence with William Shakespeare viable in a play about a football legend.
The best parts of the play are the scenes where the football games are reenacted, as a whole act is devoted to the Cumberland versus Tech match in 1916 that ended with the most lopsided score in Division 1 history, a 222-0 Tech win. The scenes were well researched, included the football technique of the age, and the vintage costumes were accurate throughout the show. There were also numerous quality backdrops used to illustrate the interior of the Administration Building (complete with a framed painting of primary Tech President Isaac Hopkins).
A negative of the play was the constant waffling over the school's correct name at the time. During the play, Georgia School of Technology was used correctly during a song, but Georgia Institute of Technology was incorrect in another scene, since the entire play was set before 1920, and the school changed names in the forties. Atkins also made the unforgivable error of labeling us Georgia Tech University once, which we have never been in the 117-year history of our fine institute.
As the scope of the play was mainly about Heisman's Tech years, it closed sadly by detailing his divorce, which led him to seek employment in the Northeast. It especially hit home to me, since only two years ago I saw his divorce certificate for sale at the football Kickoff Celebration for a sum of $2,500. Although no one bought it, if I had had the money, I would have picked it up at the time, since it's a notarized signature of a Tech legend. Think of it like an 85 year old Certificate of Authenticity. What's disturbing is that the sum is ten percent more than the contract that Heisman signed to coach the football, baseball, and track seasons at Tech in 1904.
I will say that I enjoyed the play, as it showed that Tech has a strong history in both academics and athletics, and that it is well respected across the country.
With a rewrite to eliminate the dream sequence and the haphazard coverage of the racial tensions of the day, the play could become very good. When that happens, I will suggest personally that the Ferst Theater carry the play to introduce younger Tech fans to a piece of their proud history. Verdict: An interesting take on one of Tech's heroes, this musical is great for lovers of Tech history.