‘Affair Of Honour’ Aims To Teach History And Life Lessons
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
La Jolla Country Day School Band Director William Reed joins us to discuss the musical-opera he wrote and composed. "Affair of Honour," which focuses on the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, has been three years in the making and stars both students and professional actors. A final staged reading will take place on June 10 and 11 at 7 p.m. at the Four Flowers Theater at La Jolla Country Day School.
A final staged reading of "Affair of Honour" will take place on June 10 and 11 at 7 p.m. at the Four Flowers Theater, La Jolla Country Day School, 4940 Genesee Ave, La Jolla, CA 92117.
TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. The most famous duel in American history is probably the one in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Much has been written about the deadly rivalry between those two powerful early Americans. And San Diegan William Reed has written a musical which places the feud at its center. The musical is called "Affair of Honour." Reed is the Band Director at La Jolla Country Day School. His musical has been a project of much collaboration. And it will be performed in a staged reading this weekend by a cast that includes students and professional musicians. We're joined now in studio by William Reed and two of the performers. Nick Munson is – plays Alexander Hamilton in “Affair of Honour.” And, Nick, thank you very much. And – oh, let me see, Garrett. I got – Nick is another guy who’s also in the show.
WILLIAM REED (Composer/Playwright): Correct. Right.
FUDGE: But you’re Garrett. Garrett plays Aaron Burr. Thank you very much. And Erica Dawson is a graduate of La Jolla Country Day School and, Erica, thank you very much for coming in. And thank you, William Reed. And, William, let me start by talking with you about these two men, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and their place in American history. First of all, who is Alexander Hamilton? Who was Alexander Hamilton?
REED: Well, Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury and, in a lot of ways, he was the architect to our modern banking system. But his influence goes way beyond that. He was an essential contributor to the framing and ratification of the Constitution. And his famous document, the Federalist Papers, which he collaborated with James Madison and John Jay, it’s one of the most quoted documents in all of American history, in Supreme Court cases, in any kind of political debate or any kind of talk, philosophy of politics, everyone always returns to the Federalist Papers.
FUDGE: To the Federalist Papers – so Alexander Hamilton was a great intellectual, it sounds like.
REED: He was a genius, really. Just a sheer brilliance from an early age and it’s really that sheer brain power that sort of rockets him to the top of the, you know, American society.
FUDGE: What about Aaron Burr? Now he was vice president at the time of the duel. He was vice president to Thomas Jefferson…
FUDGE: …I think.
FUDGE: How did he fit into the early days of this country?
REED: Well, Aaron Burr, you know, unfortunately, you know, his name is really more obscure than Hamilton’s. At best, he was a savvy politician. He wasn’t a great thinker in the same way that Adams and Jefferson were but his influence is often overlooked. And he really has two major influences to American politics and one has to do with the evolution of political campaigning. You know, Aaron Burr was way ahead of his time when it came to campaigns and to getting people elected. He was one of the first to really have a methodical way of canvassing. He would, you know, get names and numbers of everyone that lived in every district, know what they voted and when it came time to bring people to the polls, he would have his people go out, take them, you know, themselves, and really kept meticulous records about that. But the second major influence, I guess, really that he had was in the Senate where, you know, in the – he imposed these rigid sort of adherence to procedure and decorum. So like when we listen to CSPAN today and we listen to this what seems like an archaic dialogue in procedure, ‘the Senator from Georgia yields his time to the great Senator from Kentucky,’ and they go kind of back and forth like that, to us it may seem a little mundane and tedious but we have Aaron Burr to thank for that.
FUDGE: Garrett, it sounds like you did a fair amount of research into the character of Aaron Burr to do this role, right?
GARRETT HARRIS (Company Member): A fair amount, yeah.
FUDGE: Okay. Well, what would you like to say about the character that you’re playing?
HARRIS: Well, he’s just – Well, he’s a loving father, first of all, which was kind of a surprise. He has a daughter who – I don’t know how much we should talk about the story…
FUDGE: Yeah, go ahead.
FUDGE: Say whatever you want.
REED: Sure, yeah.
HARRIS: Well, it’s historical records.
REED: Right, yeah.
HARRIS: So he does actually – he’s going to develop her into a like almost a modern woman, being an equal with men as far as intellect. And – But then he decides to go ahead and make her marry someone else for a presidential vote in the campaign against Jefferson. So that gives, as a singer and an actor, that gives you so much to play with right there, just that betrayal of the person you love the most for your own gain.
FUDGE: William, why did you choose this duel, this story, as a subject for a musical?
REED: Well, I think what jumped out at me immediately is that this is a true story but yet it has all the elements of, you know, a classic Greek tragedy or a Shakespearian tragedy but those same elements that make Shakespeare good, that make these Greek plays great, they’re all present in the Hamilton-Burr story, and they required very little alteration on my part.
FUDGE: And it sounds like American history is something you’ve always had a very strong interest in. And I think you told me yesterday that you’ve read just about every biography and every history book that is associated with this event…
REED: Well, I tried…
FUDGE: …including Gore Vidal’s famous novel “Burr.”
REED: And that one is probably – it’s a great work of historical fiction. Most of it is true but he does add a bit of his own flair to it as well. But it was definitely an influence in crafting the story.
FUDGE: Why did Aaron Burr challenge Alexander Hamilton to a duel?
REED: Well, that’s a – that’s sort of one of the great questions in American history. There’s a lot of sort of different explanations. The most extreme and the one that Vidal raises in his book, which is in part of his own invention but he does have some basis for it, is that Hamilton, in fact, you know, made a comment or insinuated that Burr might be having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. That’s – there’s very little evidence of that. They had a unique relationship. They were much closer than most fathers and daughters are. But, in reality, it had more to do with reputation. Both Hamilton and Burr’s reputations at the time of the duel were on the decline. Burr had lost the favor of his party. Jefferson no longer wanted to, you know, to be an ally with him. Hamilton, because of all of his in-fighting with Adams and other members of the Federalists, had really lost influence in the Federalist Party as well. So, really, what was happening is that both men were trying any way they could to regain some type of political power, political favor.
FUDGE: And this affair of honor…
FUDGE: …may have been a way to do that?
REED: Well, yeah, because if you can prove yourself as a gentleman by settling a dispute in this formal way, you follow procedure, you go through the process, and then in the end you come out with your honor preserved, that does a lot for you in the, you know, in the view of the society at the time.
FUDGE: And we’re going to hear a song pretty soon that gets to just that very thing that you were talking about. Once again, I am – I’m Tom Fudge and you’re listening to These Days. My guests are William Reed, Erica Dawson and Garrett Harris. And Garrett and Erica are performers in the musical, “Affair of Honour” and William Reed wrote it and wrote the music. And, well, let’s hear a little bit of music…
FUDGE: …because we were talking about – well, I was talking about that song…
FUDGE: …and which gets to some of the things that you were talking about, about being a gentleman and the very – the procedures you go through in order to fight the duel.
FUDGE: And so let’s listen to the song. This is called “Code Duello.”
(audio of Nick Munson and Garrett Harris performing “Code Duello” from the musical “Affair of Honour”)
FUDGE: And that is “Code Duello” and, Will, who’s the bass and who’s the tenor?
REED: Well, that was Garrett Harris as Aaron Burr, singing the bari-tenor part.
REED: And the tenor was Nick Munson as Alexander Hamilton.
FUDGE: Now this business of feuding, was this something that was still common at the time of the founding of this country?
REED: It was common, and it would remain common throughout, you know, the time leading up to the Civil War and even after. And it was common in America, and the tradition dates back to Europe and, you know, there’s – each sort of region of Europe had a different, you know, laws of honor codes. But the one that I found that I used the most in this was one that actually dates back to Ireland. But in it all, you know, there are, and what the song is trying to explain, is that there are these trigger words that would immediately incite an honor dispute, an insult: coward, scoundrel, puppy. Something like that. And if you would hear someone call someone else that, any of those words, you know, in any discussion, the gentlemen of the time immediately know what’s going to happen next. Now a dispute has happened, an affair – you’ve entered into an affair of honor, and now certain rules must be followed if you want to resolve that.
FUDGE: And, Garrett, as an actor, how do you – what – how do you think about that? I mean, you know, your character Aaron Burr, how was he insulted and why did he feel so strongly that he had to defend his honor in this way?
HARRIS: Right, well, that’s the – there’s a series of letters actually that goes back and forth between Hamilton-Burr and then finally Burr says, you know what, set a date. It had gone too far. But in this case, they both acted as seconds on opposing sides in a previous duel during the Revolutionary War between General Lee and Major Lawrence.
REED: General Charles Lee and Major John Lawrence. Yeah.
HARRIS: Right. So that’s the context where we’re singing it initially, is as seconds going over the code so that everything is followed.
FUDGE: And a second is the partner to a person who’s in a duel.
REED: Exactly. You have the principles and those are the ones that have the disagreement. But once the affair of honor is entered into, they don’t talk to one another directly or communicate directly. They communicate through the seconds, which, you know, will sort of relate the messages back and forth and will act as seconds should it come down to a duel.
FUDGE: We’re talking about an “Affair of Honour,” which describes the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and also describes a new musical written by William Reed, who’s one of our guests. You’re listening to These Days. We’re going to take a break and when we return, we’re going to hear more about this musical and we’re going to hear a little more music, so stay tuned.
FUDGE: I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are William Reed, Garrett Harris and Erica Dawson. Garrett and Erica are performers in a new musical called “Affair of Honour,” which is being performed by the folks at La Jolla Country Day. And William Reed is the band director at La Jolla Country Day. He is the composer and writer of “Affair of Honour,” which has as its center the duel, the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. And, Will, we’re going to talk with Erica in just a little bit…
FUDGE: …but before we do, why don’t you talk about the way you cast this because it sounds like you’ve got professional actors and professional singers but you’ve also got a lot of students involved.
REED: Yeah, it’s a massive collaboration. It starts first with the La Jolla Country Day School, who – that was awarded an E.E. Ford grant in education. And the grant, in general, the E.E. Ford Foundation likes to see it, you know, go towards different kinds of creative collaboration. So in this case, we used faculty from different departments in the school. We have faculty from the English department that advise on script, dialogue, narrative structure. We have faculty from the history department looking at historical accuracy, placing it in historical context. Members from the Performing Arts department, especially Scott Feldsher, who’s the founder of Sledgehammer Theatre here in San Diego and also the director at La Jolla Country Day, and the best part I think, we have our students involved, student actors, student singers, student musicians that have signed onto the process, in addition to all the other things they do on campus, sports, schoolwork and all the other things they’re involved in. They’ve decided to take time out of their lives and participate in this. And then the third one is the local professionals, members like Garrett and Nick from the San Diego Opera that are coming in and they’re working with the young actors and actresses.
FUDGE: Well, Erica Dawson, tell me what characters do you play in this show?
ERICA DAWSON (Company Member): The main character that I play in the show only appears in the first act and it’s Mrs. Prevost who is, at first, Aaron Burr’s lover and they’re actually having an affair in the beginning. But they end up getting married and they have a daughter, Theodosia. And, unfortunately, Mrs. Burr, she passes away from cancer but she leaves on Theodosia to Aaron Burr it’s really interesting to play Mrs. Burr, well, actually Mrs. Prevost in the beginning because she is having an affair with Aaron and just – it’s interesting to see this side of women in this time because whenever I think of women in the late 1700s or early 1800s, I think of meek and shy women who don’t have a lot of freedom and independence. And at that time, women didn’t share the same equality with men but they were aware of that and they still wanted the same freedom and power that men had. And I think that my character really shows that.
FUDGE: And had you ever taken an interest in this time in history or did you just learn a lot doing this role?
DAWSON: Well, I learned a lot during U.S. History but the difference in this musical is we learned about them personally. In like U.S. History, I learned about what they did in history but not how their lives were and how they were affected, and it’s more of a way that we can relate to them, which is so much more interesting to me.
FUDGE: Will, how did you try to make this story different from the several other plays or musicals that have been written about the founding fathers?
REED: Well, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just the story, excuse me, about, you know, two profile politicians that try to kill one another. I wanted to be a little more about that. In truth, it’s about fidelity and family, and the women in the show, I mean, they’re not modern women. They’re women of their own time but they’re consciously aware of the inequality of the sexes. And, you know, they challenge the men in their lives, you know, about the ideals of freedom, independence, liberty, you know, by saying you’ve won this for yourselves now what about the rest of us that are out there? What about the 50% of the population? What is it that we’ve got? You know, what is it that the revolution has meant to us?
FUDGE: We want to hear a little bit more music from the play, and this is a song that I think, Will, you should set us up for. It’s called “Theodosia’s Lament.” What is this?
REED: Theodosia is, you know, she’s the daughter of Aaron Burr, and her character is a tragic one amongst some of the other tragic characters in the story. But what has happened, as Garrett mentioned earlier, is that Burr after promising her a life of independence, a progressive life, a life of education, you know, where she would almost be able to operate like a man, you know, like men do in that particular world, Aaron Burr takes that away from her. And he needs her – he sort of coerces her into this marriage where he can gain some political influence. And this particular song is her song about how she’s lost all of the things that she was promised in life.
FUDGE: And here’s “Theodosia’s Lament.”
(audio of “Theodosia’s Lament” from “Affair of Honour”)
FUDGE: That’s “Theodosia’s Lament” from the musical “Affair of Honour.” You know, Garrett, I’ve been calling this a musical but how would you describe the music in this show? Is it like musical music? Is it operatic?
HARRIS: It’s musical music. It didn’t start that way though.
REED: It’s kind of a hybrid.
HARRIS: We were just talking about this a little dramatically yesterday.
REED: That’s right.
HARRIS: And, you know, I’d always heard about singers kind of pushing like composers like Mozart or Puccini or Verdi for better music for themselves, and I always thought that was strange. And that’s kind of what I’m doing, though, right now with Will in that there’s still some leftovers of operatic form like recetative…
HARRIS: …that are pretty challenging to get across as an actor.
FUDGE: Erica, how would you describe the music?
DAWSON: Whenever you watch musicals today and you hear the music, to me the music in this musical is different because a lot of times we see musicals that are very commercial and – well, at least I do, that are very popular today. And the music in this is so in tune with the feelings and whenever you hear the song, you can actually feel what the character’s feeling, and that’s what’s so special and precious about each song and character.
FUDGE: And you have said, William, to me, that you think the difference between this and many modern musicals is modern musicals have kind of gone to the pop musical, the rock musical…
FUDGE: …and this is maybe a more old-fashioned style of musical.
REED: Yeah, to a certain extent. I mean, the rock musical is a new trend that, over the last few years, that has been very popular, you know, and it’s just one, you know, sort of avenue that new composers are exploring. And then this particular – and there is a musical now in New York called “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which, you know, is also an American history-based musical but takes – uses that style of music. So…
FUDGE: And “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” there’s another American president – there’s an American president who was involved in many duels, right?
REED: Many – Yes, many duels and he obviously came after Hamilton and Burr so more evidence that the dueling culture continues, you know, well through the Civil War.
FUDGE: You are going to be putting on a staged reading this weekend, I think, Will.
FUDGE: What’s a staged reading? A staged reading of “Affair of Honour.”
REED: Umm-hmm. What it is is essentially it’s an elaborate read-through of the piece. We’ll – The actors and actresses, they’re not going to have many of their scenes memorized so they’ll be working with a book in front of them. They don’t – we don’t have costumes. There’ll be minimal costumes but there’ll be kind of period neutral outfits that they’ll be wearing. And we have a set but it’s a minimal set. Really, what you’ll see, they’ll be interacting, they’ll be walking around but you won’t see a full staging, you won’t see full sets and full costumes. But we will have an orchestra.
FUDGE: So is this the finished product?
REED: I hope not. I hope that this is just the end of one stage of the journey.
FUDGE: Well, let’s, before we’re out of time, let’s play one more song. “Common Sense?”
FUDGE: What is meant by “Common Sense” here?
REED: Well, we – we’re all familiar with the pamphlet Common Sense, not the one by Glenn Beck, hopefully, but the original one by Thomas Paine. And “Common Sense” – this is actually not Thomas Paine but it’s Nick Munson as Alexander Hamilton singing about the ideals of the revolution. This is a song that comes early on in the show and what he is trying to do is, in the scene, the British are, you know, they’ve laid siege to Manhattan, they’re sailing up the New York Harbor, they’re trying to cut off Washington and end the war early. And Hamilton is trying to rouse the militia together at King’s College to try to go down and sort of try to hold off the British while Washington can escape.
FUDGE: Okay, well, here’s “Common Sense” from “Affair of Honour.”
(audio of Nick Munson singing “Common Sense” from “Affair of Honour”)
FUDGE: And that’s Nick Munson, in the role of Alexander Hamilton, performing a song from the musical “Affair of Honour.” A final staged reading of “Affair of Honour” will take place June 10th and 11th, I think that’s tomorrow and Friday…
FUDGE: …actually, at 7:00 p.m. at the Four Flowers Theatre at La Jolla Day Country School (sic). My guests have been William Reed, Garrett Harris and Erica Dawson. William is the band director at La Jolla Country Day School. He’s also the composer and writer of the musical opera “Affair of Honour.” And, Will, thank you.
REED: Thank you.
FUDGE: Garrett Harris is a singer and an actor who has performed with the San Diego Opera. He plays Aaron Burr in “Affair of Honour.” And, Garrett, thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
FUDGE: Erica Dawson is a graduate of La Jolla Country Day School, and she plays a number of characters in “Affair of Honour.” And, Erica, thanks to you.
DAWSON: Thank you.
FUDGE: And thanks to all of you who listened. I’m Tom Fudge. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.
(audio of duet from “Affair of Honour”)