Smells Like Rain & Tastes Like Tears: Shepherd the Musical
By Joshua Heston and Caleb Brubaker
“Do they think this is the end?” Dave Wallace wondered as he looked over an audience rising to their feet. The applause was long and lasting as the house and cast wiped away tears. Wallace was crying as well. Wallace, though only 35, had been given the role of the paternal “Shepherd” in a production created by composer Stan Beard and Dr. Hayden Head and based on Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 book The Shepherd of the Hills.
This night, the production (simply titled Shepherd the Musical) was getting a run-through of sorts — a concert reading in Gittinger Recital Hall on the campus of College of the Ozarks. The community had been invited in force.
Beard, whose work as musical director and composer includes the long-running Silver Dollar City productions A Dickens Christmas Carol, Headin’ West, and It’s A Wonderful Life, was at the piano, having written the score and led the premiere’s direction. “Stan certainly qualifies as a genius in my mind,” shares Kevin Day, a well-known Branson actor, musician and craftsman who performs as “Harry the Photographer” in Shepherd. “The music he writes is very melodic. It’s complex. As far as structure there’s a lot going on. I like the spontaneity of his music. It’s very intelligent and tasteful.”
When Beard was first contacted by Dr. Hayden Head, the composer was not familiar with Wright’s work. “When I finally read the book,” he notes, “I couldn’t believe when it was written!” The book was a best-seller when released early in the 20th century. Many, however, feel the novel resonates with timeless themes.
“I think back to the historical aspect of the town and the novel and I think that means a lot to us who are long-time Branson folks,” says Marty Schmitt, 22-year entertainment manager with Silver Dollar City. “We have to keep that legacy alive and not allow it to be buried in the glitz and glamour. We need to keep the integrity of Harold Bell Wright’s novel.”
It was Schmidt who introduced Shepherd’s writer — Hayden Head — to its composer — Stan Beard. “Stan was very gracious,” she remembers. “And Hayden is such a faithful and good man. I knew him because of his wife Sue. Hayden knew God was going to do something with this project. He waited years for the collaboration.”
Matters of patience, faith, humility and challenge resonate throughout the lives of those involved in the production as well as the novel itself. Further, Wright addressed difficult issues that speak to a modern audience — depression, broken relationships, teen pregnancy, illegitimate children, even mental health.
“Pete knows...” is an echo throughout the book and the phrase is part of the Branson lexicon, but dig deeper and you find a bastard child described by his own grandfather as “witless.” “We would have terms to describe Pete today,” notes Beard, “Words like “autistic’ or ‘asperger syndrome.’”
The role of “Pete” went to the sublimely gifted yet understated Captain Sibley of Springfield, also known for his role of “Tiny Tim” in A Dickens Christmas Carol. “He’s just an unbelievable young talent,” says Beard.
Wright understood humanity and incorporated powerful themes into his works. His literary wrestling with issues of integrity, morality and intellect remain timeless. The author also understood the Ozark Mountains to be a harsh place often producing harsh people — as exemplified by his character of Wash Gibbs, portrayed by robust Branson actor Robert Montgomery. “They told me, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’” says the actor. “Bringing it down to almost a whisper as I’m making threats was a unique experience for me but ultimately a good one.”
Yet simultaneously Wright lyrically wrote of the Ozarks as a beautiful and serene place — a place of rest and spiritual healing. Both subjects are explored through the song, “These Hills Ain’t What You’re Lookin’ For.” The men of the cast sing of the hardships and trials while the women echo the beauty and peace.
The pain of an internal struggle or private trial is also heady subject matter in the hands of Wright — a theme furthered by Beard and Head’s empathy.
“Stan’s walk in the wilderness was with his wife Heidi,” explains Marty Schmidt. “Her illness was a three-year walk for both of them, completely walking by faith, desperately dependent on the Lord daily to get through.” When asked, Beard points to his co-collaborator as inspiration as well. “Hayden was involved on this project a long time before he even heard my name and he wrote Shepherd to soothe his own spirit.”
“A lot of this was precipitated by my father who passed away in 2008. He was just a kind and holy man, just a...,” Head paused for a moment, speaking from the heart, “...a beautiful person. And so, that was obviously hard. Working on the play kind of helped me. I guess you could almost say it was a sort of therapy.”
Head understood the pain of death and found a beautiful and passionate sorrow in the words “the taste of tears and the smell of rain,” words which worked their way into the song lyrics and the audience’s hearts.
This was the understanding that pushed Head forward; an understanding Beard drew upon. Kevin Day furthers, “It’s the passion in the music. Stan has walked through a lot of things in his life. I think that’s made him a deeper writer.”
Even so, the artistic creation of the music was not, initially, an easy one. “At one point,” confides Beard, “I told Hayden, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to continue this project. But when I sat down [at the piano] I said, ‘Okay, let’s see if I can write one line,’ and literally within a bit more than a day, I wrote the rest of the score.
“That was when I felt very clearly called to be a part of Shepherd.”
Beard’s calling culminated in a brilliant piece of work and the audience responded enthusiastically to the minimalist presentation of the concert reading. There were few props. The actors, dressed in black, faced the audience.
“When everything is stripped away, it makes you dig deeper in the script. It makes you dig deeper in the music. It makes you work hard to bring out the emotions,” explains Matthew James, a Silver Dollar City vocalist with a degree in musical theater.
Extraordinary focus was placed on the humanity of the characters.
Following two sold-out shows, Head and Beard hope for more open doors — perhaps a touring company, perhaps a permanent home here in what is still known as “Shepherd of the Hills Country.”
“The questions is, as they say, ‘How does it play in Poughkeepsie?” Beard muses. “It was a phenomenal experience and I hope and pray it makes it to a larger venue and a full show here in Branson.”
“Hayden has done a very good job of capturing honest words and real emotion throughout the whole of the show,” continues Dave Wallace who, as “The Shepherd,” was called upon to carry the weight of the show’s emotions during the second half.
“The words Hayden wrote are so simple but the power is undeniable.” Wallace stands, facing the audience, tears streaming down his face as he discovers his son “Howard,” (Jonathan Beard) is dying.
In the audience, “I looked over at my sister and her little lip was doing this quiver thing,” recalls Schmidt. “We just sort of met eyes for a second and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! We’re watching history being made.’”
The audience rose to their feet, wiping tears. The applause broke the tension, surprising even the cast.
“It was really overwhelming,” says James. “We got the standing ovation and we didn’t expect that because it wasn’t the end of the show!”
Emotions were high and it was hard to imagine a dry eye in the house. “The Believe piece is really the emotional zenith of the show but it’s not the finale,” Beard insists warmly.
“Life is a collection of moments,” observed Wallace with a shepherd-like wisdom far beyond his 35 years. “There was something in those scenes with Howard, the intimacy of our faces unabashedly facing the audience. It’s something we all shared because it is a human story: Everyone has loved ones that have gone away. Everyone has forgiveness they’ve needed. And forgiveness they’ve given. And it’s all worthwhile. Every bit of it.
Outside the brightly lit music box of a recital hall and beyond the noise of the applause, a light mist fell. The Ozark hills of which Wright wrote so eloquently loomed silently, dark and unforgiving. But an early spring bloomed in the March night and, with it, all the magic of hope and forgiveness.
“It’s been a real labor of love,” mused Head, smiling, “and it’s been a long time getting here.”