Preview: Woody Sez

Woody Sez traces the life of American folk hero Woody Guthrie and Richard Smirke discovers why it translates so well into theatre

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“Harsh-voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck about American folk artist Woody Guthrie.

Forty-five years after his death from Huntingdon’s disease, Guthrie’s reputation as a giant of American culture and founding father of the protest song has grown beyond refute, with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello to Billy Bragg to his most famous advocate, Bob Dylan, citing the “dust bowl troubadour” as a formative influence.

His best-known songs, which include This Land is Your Land and Pastures of Plenty, are rightly regarded as classics, while the singer’s colourful life story – spanning the oil town boom years, Great Depression, Second World War and 1960s Greenwich Village folk explosion – has inspired countless books and autobiographies, most famously Joe Klein’s definitive Woody Guthrie: A Life. Nearly all accounts are agreed on the fact that Guthrie, whose guitar bore the legend “this machine kills fascists”, was a flawed, self-righteous and, at times petulant man, but that doesn’t detract from the lasting power of his music nor his place in popular music history.

“He really did take on the mantle of trying to speak for the common man, but he did so in, what at the time, was a very modern way: more pointed and critical than anyone previously,” says David Lutken, a seasoned Broadway and folk music performer, who has transformed his lifelong love of Guthrie into acclaimed theatre production Woody Sez. Part music concert, part play, part spoken word, the award-nominated show stars Lutken in the title role and weaves together close to 30 of Guthrie’s songs with excerpts from his past and articles that he wrote for leftist newspaper The People’s World to paint a vivid portrait of a complex, contradictory American hero.

“I’ve described it at various times as being hilarious and gut-wrenching and tragic and triumphant,” explains its star and co-writer in his native Texan drawl.

“It is all of those things and it really does a lot to explicate, enhance and show where his music and poetry came from. Not just the experiences that he was having and a particular part of American history that he lived through, but also his own personal story of up, down and then down some more.”

Woody Sez was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has been regularly returning to these shores ever since.

“We’ve been very well received all over the world, but there’s a little something extra when we go to England,” recalls Lutken proudly. “I’ve never known exactly how to explain it, but y’all are big fans and we sure are grateful.”

Since making its Fringe debut, the production has gradually expanded from 60 to 90 minutes in length, while the show’s current tour of UK theatres sees original cast member Helen Jean Russell once again join the four multi-instrumentalist performers charged with bringing Woody Sez to life.

“It’s been a very interesting ride for us,” reflects Lutken, who believes Guthrie’s songs and political idealism are arguably more relevant now than ever.

“We started in 2007 when George W Bush was the president and then to ride through the economic collapse of 2008 and the Occupy movement in the years after, I would say that not only his relevance, but also the facets of his relevance have been magnified.”

So what does he think Guthrie would make of his iconic status and Woody Sez, in particular?

“I think he would probably have a lot of criticism for me, because he had a lot of criticism for everybody,” responds Lutken with a deep chuckle. “But I also think he would feel in some ways justified.”

Woody Sez, 4 Feb, Opera House, Buxton; 5&6 Feb, Crucible, Sheffield; 7&9 Feb, Lowry Theatre, Salford; 11&13 Feb, Harrogate Theatre;
14-16 Feb, Theatre Royal, Wakefield

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