In February 2011, Kate Atkinson and Karen Harris traveled to Nashville to present an idea for a stage musical using original music by the late musician Dan Fogelberg to his widow, Jean Fogelberg. "Jean wanted to hear about the project and the story we want to tell with Dan's music," said Atkinson. "Karen and I said to her, 'We will fly anywhere anytime. We'd really like to meet you in person.'"
So the writing partners — Atkinson, who writes for stage and screen, and Harris, a 30-year TV writing veteran — flew to Nashville to present their early work with Grammy-winning arranger Victor Vanacore in tow. Nearly seven years later, Part of the Plan is making its official world premiere at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, running September 8-24 through what has been proclaimed by Mayor Megan Barry as Dan Fogelberg Month.
The show tells an original story narrated by Fogelberg's songs ("Longer," "Leader of the Band," "Phoenix"), which shaped a generation's soundtrack alongside legendary artists like James Taylor, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne. His work is now headed back to Nashville, where he launched his career — not to mention where he penned the musical's title song. Atkinson and Harris took some time to recount the twists of fate that brought them to this point and look ahead to the next part of the plan.
Part of the Plan is making its world premiere, but this show has been in the works for about seven years now. Where did the original idea to make a Dan Fogelberg musical come from?
Kate Atkinson: I started dating a guy (who I'm still with), and we were playing each other our favorite songs — and he played me a Dan Fogelberg song. We then took a road trip together and took some CDs with us, and Dan Fogelberg's Greatest Hits was one of them. We ended up listening to that one the entire way up and the entire way back. In "Nether Lands," there's a large orchestral opening, and I turned to Richard and said, "This is the opening of a Broadway musical."
Karen Harris: From that inspiration grew the rest of the show. "Nether Lands" is still going to be our overture.
Are there any specific musicals that influenced the evolution of Part of the Plan?
Kate: We were very inspired by the show Once. It was so intimately directed and choreographed. They would drag a vacuum cleaner out onto the stage and you knew you were in the vacuum store. It was so real, and you were right there along for the ride. The way that Broadway's moving with the Come From Aways and the Dear Evan Hansens — we're telling more intimate stories. That's what we've got. We've got an intimate story with an incredible score.
How did you come up with the story you wanted to set Dan Fogelberg's music to?
Kate: I had the very bare bones of an adoption story that was lurking around in the back of my brain as a potential Hallmark movie. Karen was leaving her job and going to write a play, and I said, "How about a musical?"
Karen: The Broadway channel is my go-to on Sirius/XM radio. I didn't get to see a show on Broadway till 1980 (I won't say how old I was) but growing up had the My Fair Lady movie soundtrack and the My Fair Lady Broadway album and Cabaret and West Side Story. I loved the music so much. But I worked in rock 'n' roll in my early days.
Kate: One of Karen's very first jobs in entertainment was working for Columbia Records, and Dan Fogelberg was an artist on that label. So when I said to her, "Do you know Dan Fogelberg?", Karen said, "Oh my gosh, do I know him?!" I just knew that she was going to be the perfect writing partner. She was very much on board with making this an original story. So the two of us sat in her office for a few days and fleshed out 30 years of a story that takes place over three decades — post-World War Two through the '60s social and sexual revolution, and into the political upheaval of the 1970s.
Can you share more about the story itself?
Karen: It follows an adopted baby boy who was given up as an infant — and the girl of privilege who had been forced by her parents to give him up — through those three decades. It's what happens to them as a result of this one action. The theme of our show is that everything is part of a bigger plan — that nothing happens by accident. Even the terrible things that happen have a purpose.
Kate: I think life becomes easier if you feel that things happen for very specific reasons. You may not know in the moment, but as you look back on your life, you know that you were exactly where you were meant to be at that given point in time.
Is that what this musical feels like to both of you?
Kate: We've had a lot of "part of the plan" moments throughout the development of our show. I had written a letter to Jean Fogelberg telling her about the idea. She got back to me a little while later and said, "I've been approached several times about setting Dan's music to a stage show, and we've turned everyone down until now." She said, "I really want to hear more about what you gals have in mind. Partly because of the way you've written this letter but also because I'm opening it on the third anniversary of Dan's death."
And the fact that Kathleen O'Brien, the CEO and president of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, happened to be a huge Dan Fogelberg fan — that was a wonderful thing. Nashville was the place that we really wanted to open our show, given all of Dan's ties here. And this is our very first production of Part of the Plan. It's as big a deal for TPAC as it is for us because it's the first time that they're actually producing an original work. For them to have such skin in the game for this show means the world to us.
Karen: Kate and I have shepherded it through to this point with a lot of help from a lot of wonderful people. It's time to find a lead producer who can take it into whatever its next phase is meant to be.
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