creative:impact - Jason Eyster wrote a musical celebrating his hometown
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT JAMES PARRY (JASON) EYSTER:
Jason Eyster has built lyres (and harps), trained lawyers, and raised layers (and peacocks). Jason studied composition with Lawrence Widdoes at the Julliard School of Music and composed the score for the PBS Special “Education Unbound”, as well as for various dance and theatre productions. He twice received Creative Artist Grants from the Michigan Council of the Arts. He lives on a small farm near Chelsea, Michigan where he and his wife raised their four children.
Currently a partner in a law firm that focuses on antitrust class actions and commodities manipulation, Jason previously taught at several law schools including the Peking University School of Transnational Law. In addition, he served as a long- time co-editor of the Journal of Asian Business, Senior Editor of the annual Immigration and Nationality Law Handbook, and Executive Director of Ars Musica, the Baroque Orchestra. Jason is a graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School, where he founded and was Editor-in-Chief of the Fordham International Law Journal.
Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to this WEMU segment that explores the impact of residents in Washtenaw County who define themselves as artists anc creatives. James Parry Eyster, formerly known--actually familiarly known--as Jason, made good on his New Year's Eve resolution. While we won't mention that it was a resolution he made in 1989, he did write the book and the score for the musical, The Only Man in Town. It's about one of Chelsea, Michigan's towering and controversial residents, Frank Porter Glazier. The show will soon hit the stage of the Chelsea Area Players. We're going to find more about the show and, more importantly, Jason. Welcome to the show, Jason.
Jason Eyster: Thank you. Really pleased to be here.
Deb Polich: So, I'm as fascinated by your history as I am about Frank Glazier. So, you're an attorney by training and trade, and you're a self-taught musician who studied composition at Juilliard. You've run nonprofit arts organizations, and you've represented Actors Equity's Union. And now, you've written a historically-based musical. Oh, and then there's the politics. You sit on Chelsea's school board. If someone is looking for a linear path, yours is not it. Is there a tie throughout all of this? Can you link all these interests together for us?
Jason Eyster: I think the tie is that I'm someone who is skilled a little bit of all trades is a master of none.
Deb Polich: I feel you.
Jason Eyster: So, that is it. You know, and I think that I have a curiosity about how to do things. And so, I set out to do them. And my second motto is, "Expect to fail the first time." This is my first musical. So, there we are.
Deb Polich: There we go. So, tell us about this 1989 New Year's resolution. I know very few people who have ever listed "write a musical" on their resolution list.
Jason Eyster: Well, I certainly had not done that before. My wife moved to Chelsea in 1981, and I came to learn about Frank Glazier, who is popularly and maybe only known as the crook who built the Clocktower, our iconic building. But I learned much more about him. And based on my work in New York representing the union and also the work that I had done composing music for various different groups and for television, I wrote down that I wanted to write a musical myself about Frank Glazier.
Deb Polich: So, musical theater is one of my favorite art forms, as people have heard me say before. Is it one of yours, too?
Jason Eyster: It is indeed. It can convey music. It conveys ideas and emotions that words alone cannot. And then, when you combine that with meaningful dance, it's even more intense.
Deb Polich: And it also can move a story along really fast in 3 minutes.
Jason Eyster: That's right. If it does. If each song is indeed a question that is answered, that moves along the story, and it's great.
Deb Polich: So, tell us the fascination about Frank Porter Glazier.
Jason Eyster: The biggest fascination was just trying to understand who he was as a man. And I talked to psychologists and social workers and all trying to understand what caused this fellow to stop being just a druggist and suddenly erupt into being the mayor of the town, president of the school board, many, many other things, bringing water, electricity, telephones, industry to Chelsea, the first old age home running for almost...well, he did run for governor. What caused this person to be this way, as well as being a poet and an inventor? And so, my search was to try to understand why that was, as well as to rehabilitate him and to give Chelsea an origin story.
Deb Polich: And this happened, if I'm correct, about 100 years ago, or at least he died about 100 years ago.
Jason Eyster: Died in 1922. The play takes place from 1893 to 1907, which were the pivotal years for him.
Deb Polich: 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is playwright and composer Jason Eyster, whose show The Only Man in Town takes us back in history to meet one of Chelsea, Michigan's most towering and notorious residents, Frank Porter Glazier. So, you mentioned he was a druggist. Was there also a connection to an iron foundry?
Jason Eyster: That's right. He purchased a very small iron foundry just north of the railroad tracks and then brought in the double toggle drawing press, which revolutionized things for him. And he was able to stamp out stoves that were being sent all around the world and became a very successful industrialist.
Deb Polich: And Michigan, actually, was like the stove capital of the country for a long time. But he's also some of the buildings we know. You mentioned the Clocktower there in Chelsea, but also the building at the corner of Huron and Main Streets here in Ann Arbor--the Glazier building. And he also started the Ann Arbor News. I was surprised to find that out.
Jason Eyster: That's right. That's right. A number of beautiful buildings, the courthouse in Chelsea as well, which was the Glazier Bank at one point and then what was the the old age home. And now, they've rebuilt part of it, but they still have the Isabella Glazier chapel there.
Deb Polich: And why a musical? Why wouldn't you just write a story or, you know, even a straight play about him?
Jason Eyster: Because there were incredibly emotional moments in this. He goes to prison. His daughter dies. Various things happened, as well as the joy of it. And I'm not skilled enough to write an opera, but a musical seemed to be the next step that would really portray both the excitement and the sadness and the warmth that your words, at least for me, would not be able to.
Deb Polich: And are there other characters that people in these here parts would recognize?
Jason Eyster: There are indeed. His constant enemy was Harmon Holmes, who was a banker in town and who started Chelsea Milling, which became Jiffy Mix. And Harmon was very much tied to community values and tradition, while Frank wanted to change everything.
Deb Polich: And, of course, we all know the Jiffy Mix name. We don't necessarily know the Mr. Glazier name. So, you know, it's kind of interesting how somebody that prominent kind of disappears to some extent.
Jason Eyster: Yet today, we have between--if you drive north through Chelsea--on one side, you see the red brick tower of Frank's and on the other side, the white towers of Harmon's dynasty. So, they confront themselves--
Deb Polich: Daily. So, tell us about the production. 40 years after its conception, I think. It's finally reaching the stage.
Jason Eyster: It is. And I contacted Chelsea Area Players about six years ago before I'd really written very much, and they agreed to to undertake this. And now, Rebecca Grebe is directing, and we have a remarkable cast. One of my fears was that I wouldn't be able to interest actors of the quality that would be needed to portray these amazing characters. But I couldn't be more pleased and more excited--remarkable actors. Steve Pierce, who is a well-known Ann Arbor, is portraying Frank. And Amanda Patton, who is teaching now, but has been involved in CAPS since she was in the third grade and has recorded a lot of my songs for this, is going to be portraying Henrietta. And then, the other actors are also remarkable.
Deb Polich: So, you mentioned attracting the actors to it. What about the audience? What is this show? You know, it's historical. But does it play out in a modern way as well?
Jason Eyster: Well, it plays out in a modern way because it lets us know that this great conflict between tradition and change was with us back in the 1880s and nineties, and it's still certainly with us today, which I've seen on the school board. Frank wanted to change everything, and Harmon wanted to keep things the way they were. And I think that, you know, the challenge is to keep the best of tradition, but also to be able to incorporate what's new. And that's an uneasy road to travel on.
Deb Polich: Clearly always that tension between change and keeping things the same. But what we do know is that the only thing that is constant is change.
Jason Eyster: That's right. Also, the woman's role, Henrietta, has a very, very big role. She was there. She's a central character. And at first, she thought she could keep her family safe by painting flowers on plates. But then, eventually, when Frank went to jail, she traveled alone to New York and tried to convince New York bankers to renegotiate loans. And she did a number of other things that were very brave.
Deb Polich: So, in just 30 seconds, tell us. In jail?
Jason Eyster: That's right. He was running for governor. He had done some things. He became state treasurer. And I don't want to give everything in the play away. But he did go to prison.
Deb Polich: Well, we'll have to encourage everybody to check out the show. Find the information about it on WEMU dot org. And, Jason, thanks for giving us this kind of look.
Jason Eyster: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Deb Polich: Always a pleasure to talk with you. That's Jason Eyster, who soon-to-be-produced musical theater production, The Only Man in Town, introduces us to one of Chelsea's most towering and now notorious businessmen, Frank Glazier. Find out more about Jason, as well as the dates and the links about the show at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public Radio from Eastern Michigan University.
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