Nov. 30 2011 02:55 PM

Local troubadours try out for the leading role in a new Seeger musical

Gregory Page, Shawn Rohlf and Steve Poltz
Gregory Page, Shawn Rohlf and Steve Poltz

Pete Seeger stands on stage with quiet confidence. He tilts his chin up, opening his throat, and sings in a lilting tenor, his fingers nimbly picking a banjo or guitar. His songs are entertaining and eye-opening. And he’s never truly happy unless the audience sings along.

“Sing it with me,” he’ll say, as he did in March 1970 on The Johnny Cash Show. “Some of you know this song just as well as I do—no sense in me hollering my head off all by myself.”

Last month, the 92-year-old folk-music legend and longtime activist joined Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, leading a singalong of protest songs he helped popularize. With folk anthems like “We Shall Overcome” now commonplace at the hundreds of Occupy protests happening around the globe, Seeger’s music seems especially timely these days, which is partly why Todd Salovey, associate artistic director at San Diego Repertory Theatre, has written a new musical about the man. A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song to Sing: the Music of Pete Seeger will open in previews on Jan. 7 and run through Jan. 29 at the Lyceum Theatre below Horton Plaza. The question is: Who’ll play Pete?

A few months ago, San Diego crooner Gregory Page was asked to audition. He was instructed to pick a Seeger song and told he’d be reading some dialogue.

“I learned his song ‘Bring ’em Home,’ which is every bit as poignant today as it was decades ago,” Page says.

At the audition, Page says, he sang the hell out of the song and even added a few relevant references, like, If you love your Uncle Sam, then bring our boys back from Afghanistan.

Page encouraged Salovey and the casting director to sing along with him. They seemed impressed by that, Page says, but when it came time for him to read the script, he says he “choked royal.”

“I didn’t bring my reading glasses and couldn’t see the damn words,” he says. “But I left the audition with a great feeling and spent that afternoon thinking about what it would be like to be a famous stage actor.”

Page told his buddy, fellow musician Steve Poltz, about the audition and suggested he give it a go.

“I’ve always wanted to do theater,” Poltz says. “In my show, I sort of tell a lot of stories, and it’s a little theatrical.”

Although playing Seeger had never crossed Poltz’s mind, he decided to audition, teaching himself Seeger’s famous “Abiyoyo” kids story and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

“I love the song,” Poltz says. “It’s a really strong political song, and Pete Seeger performed it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but CBS cut it—they censored it out of the show because the U.S. was mired in the Vietnam War.”

Poltz stood in front of a mirror and sang the song dozens of times. But playing Seeger was a real challenge for the hyperactive performer: While Seeger is known for standing still during performances, Poltz is constantly on the move when he plays.

For the audition, Poltz dressed like Seeger, wearing a red undershirt, blue work shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a pair of old Lee jeans and boots. But it wasn’t meant to be. When it came time for Poltz to perform, he got jittery. He says he overacted the telling of “Abiyoyo,” slipped up on the song and then reverted to bouncing around, very un-Seeger-like.

“What bummed me out was that if I could have just had another week to practice, I could have nailed it,” he says.

The silver lining, though, says Poltz, is that he’s worked “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and the story behind the song into his set. He says contemporary audiences seem to connect with it.

“I feel like there was a reason I learned the song,” Poltz says. “I can kind of keep that song alive.”

Poltz and Page both received emails from the theater company saying it had decided to “go in another direction.”

Local musician Shawn Rohlf auditioned for the part, too. Rohlf has acting experience and even played the role of Seeger in a musical called The Weavers Song, which was staged in San Diego 12 years ago. He’s a huge Seeger fan.

“Pete Seeger is probably one of the most important American musicians there ever was,” Rohlf says. “Everything from civil rights to playing for the unions to being blacklisted during the McCarthy era and cleaning up the Hudson River…. You’d be hard-pressed to find any musicians who’ve done as much for social change.”

Rohlf plays the banjo and, since Seeger is an inspiration of his, he can emulate the style. He knows most of Seeger’s songs and has even met him in person.

Rohlf rocked the audition and was offered the role. But due to scheduling conflicts, he eventually declined.

The opening is a little more than a month away, and the role of Pete Seeger still hasn’t been filled. Rohlf says it’ll take quite the musician to play the part.

“He’s just such a monster of a man,” Rohlf says. “A true piece of Americana.”

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