Playwright Richard Hellesen, co-adapter of Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, recently sat down with us to discuss what it was like to develop a new script for the Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy musical. Below he shares his thoughts on the Civil War period and how it continues to inspire his writing.
I’ve always loved history, and American history in particular—probably because I saw it as one long collection of incredible stories, which appealed to me as a writer before I even knew that I was a writer. Everything that happened 150 years ago shaped the world in which we live, in ways we may not even know. So for me, to be concerned about who we are today as Americans and where we’re going, is to be interested in who we were then and how we got here. And you just never reach the bottom of that subject.
As far as plot and action, the Civil War era has everything from the vast sweep of battles, astonishing heroics and brilliant strategy, to failed gambles and sheer luck. At the character level, you encounter some of the most remarkable individuals in our national history: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton; the list just goes on and on.
What I found most inspiring while working on Freedom’s Song is that the language of the period—from great speeches to the most personal letters—is some of the most eloquent we have. And the ideas at stake—what is the proper relationship between the states and the federal government? If “all men are created equal,” what does equal mean; or men? What are liberty and justice for all?—are things we still argue about, in spite of the war.
Finally, of course, for much of the audience, it isn’t just national political heritage or somebody else’s story: tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Americans have ancestors who fought in the war on either side or were enslaved and then freed. It’s one thing to understand the Civil War as the defining moment in American history, the second Revolution. It’s another to say, as my wife can, that it was fought by great-great-grandfather in the Fourth Ohio Cavalry. It’s our national history, and our family history, too—and that will always be fascinating.
Learn more in Richard Hellesen’s video interview below. Freedom’s Song plays at Ford’s Theatre through May 20, 2015.
Richard Hellesen is the author of Necessary Sacrifices, One Destiny, The Road From Appomattox and the Ford’s Theatre walking tour Investigation: Detective McDevitt. A member of the Dramatists Guild, Hellesen is the recipient of writing awards from the National Theatre Conference, PEN USA West and the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild, among others. He lives in Sacramento, California.