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Published: 2017/11/22
by Mike Greenhaus

Jeff Chimenti Further Explores the Dead Catalog with Red Roses, Green Gold

Photo by Stuart Levine

The Grateful Dead’s music has been interpreted in all sorts of ways during the past 53 years, yet, until recently, one major type of stage has eluded that storied songbook: Off-Broadway. The recently launched production of Red Roses, Green Gold is here to change that. Written by Michael Norman Mann, whose work has long been inspired by the Dead’s music—including Cumberland Blues, the first musical comedy set to the music of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter—the new musical, currently showing at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre, is set in 1920s Cumberland, MD, and “tells the fantastical and comedic tale of Jackson Jones and his family of swindlers as they gamble their way to love and riches.”

The play weaves in a number of classic Grateful Dead songs, mostly from the period that produced Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and features a cast full of multi-instrumentalists. Red Roses, Green Gold also has a few direct connections to the Grateful Dead family: Longtime keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who is currently on the road with Dead & Company, serves as the production’s musical director, and Robert Hunter composed a new original song for the production, “Drunkard’s Carol.”

As he prepared for the Dead & Company’s fall run, Chimenti spoke about his involvement in the production, Hunter’s blessing over the work and his upcoming shows with Steve Kimock. He also looked back on highlights from Dead & Company’s recent summer run, saying, “That’s really a tough question as there are many great onstage memories to pinpoint one in particular. Let’s just say that I will keep the ones I have and will look forward to more.”

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you initially get involved with Red Roses, Green Gold, and how was the concept of the play first presented to you?

About a year and a half ago, I was initially put in contact with producer Gigi Pritzker, and I was made to understand that my name had been thrown in the hat for music director. After some phone conversations with her and an eventual introduction to her partner Ted Rawlins, I was told, “Looking forward to working with you.” They were quite comforting and so great to talk with; I felt good about signing on, knowing fully well this was foreign territory for me. Shortly after, I went to LA for a reading of it, basically being prefaced that it was a story to take place in the late 1920s with the Cumberland Gap as the location and would be utilizing material from the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty studio albums from the Grateful Dead.

Michael Norman Mann has penned a few other plays based on the Dead’s music. Did you dig into those productions before you started arranging the music for Red Roses and, if so, what were the most surprising takeaways from those shows? Also, were there any other jukebox musicals you took in to prepare for this project?

Honestly I had no idea about Michael’s history. He was basically the first person I met walking into the LA reading. We instantly hit it off, and the rest is history. He’s a great guy. Again, I had no idea what was in store and also hadn’t checked out any other jukebox musicals, so I just followed my gut and the flow of what was happening. I preferred it this way—there was no other influence involved other than the job at hand.

The Garcia/Hunter catalog has been interpreted in many ways over the years, but this is the first full-length musical with a blessing the Grateful Dead family in a while. What about the project appealed to you at this point in your career?

I just looked forward to the new experience, really. I had no idea how involved it was to put a production like this on. With that, and endless hours spent together, I feel like I have a whole new family. Everybody was so great to work with, and [there was] extreme talent at hand from the whole group via the creative team, cast and production.

You’re credited as the play’s musical supervisor and arranger. How involved were you in choosing the songs that appear in the play, and were there any tunes you hoped to include that didn’t fit the play’s plotline?

The songs were pre-chosen, actually, as they were specific to tie the storyline together. I had the pleasure of working with the very talented Andy Peterson (Musical Director/Copyist/Additional Arrangements), and together I feel we accomplished a good treatment of the music, with songs set in accordance to the script and the characters specifically involved in the scenes. Some are full ensemble, and others are paired down. There is also an active “Pit” onstage where, at times, cast members that aren’t technically involved in scenes will just play as supporting musicians.

How much did the fact that this is an off-Broadway musical that will likely draw in fans from outside the Dead universe play into your adaptation?

The goal was basically—being that the Hunter/Garcia/Grateful Dead songbook is so diverse and deep—we just wanted to represent the music as best as possible to hopefully please those that are fans of the music as well as hopefully introducing this beautiful music to those who don’t know the material at all, and in turn have new fans of it as a result.

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