From song to stage: Writer Pete Nelson crafts musical play that will star folksinger Tracy Grammer

  • From songs to stage: Pete Nelson and Tracy Grammer work on the production of a one-woman musical play, “Last Request: A Love Story,” that Nelson has written and which stars Grammer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pete Nelson has written several songs on piano for his musical “Last Request” that Tracy Grammer, who will star in the one-woman play, is transposing to guitar. The two are seen rehearsing in Nelson’s Northampton office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pete Nelson has written several songs on piano for his musical “Last Request” that Tracy Grammer, who will star in the one-woman play, is transposing to guitar. The two are seen rehearsing in Nelson’s Northampton office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Author Pete Nelson also has two singer-songwriter albums to his credit, including this 1996 Signature Sounds release.

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2022 3:31:36 PM
Modified: 12/2/2022 3:31:22 PM

Over the years, Pete Nelson’s writing has ranged far and wide: novels, short stories, magazine articles and columns, nonfiction books that examine forgotten chapters from the two world wars, mysteries, Young Adult novels — and songs.

Indeed, the Northampton-based writer released two singer-songwriter albums on Signature Sounds in the label’s early days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, earning praise from a number of musicians and prompting Maine public radio to call him “America’s best undiscovered songwriter.”

Now Nelson has taken two early novellas from his career, merging and recasting their storylines to create a one-person musical play, “Last Request: A Love Story” — a production that will showcase the work of a veteran Valley musician who in recent years has found a new creative outlet in theater.

Tracy Grammer, the longtime folksinger and songwriter/interpreter who lives in Greenfield, is at the center of this artistic re-imagining, playing Katie, a 40-something folksinger who’s returned to her childhood home in Iowa to tend to her dying mother, Kedney. Kedney, a poet and former professor, poses a challenge for her daughter: write a musical about my life, then sing it to me before I’m gone.

For Nelson and Grammer, who have been friends for years, “Last Request” has proven to be a challenging but exciting collaboration that they’ve pretty much built from scratch.

“It’s kind of an experiment,” said Nelson. “It’s just the two of us, with a very simple set — one person on stage, a microphone, a music stand, and a slide projector and screen. It’s something that’s been built by stripping away a lot of other pieces.”

“Last Request” will have three performances: Dec. 8 in downtown Florence, Dec. 16 at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, and Dec. 18 at the Drake in Amherst. The productions are free, though donations will be accepted (Nelson says he received some grants to produce the work).

Grammer initially made her name as part of a celebrated folk duo with the late songwriter Dave Carter and has continued to perform as a soloist, and as part of a duo with Shutesbury multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry. In this new venture, the guitarist and fiddle player says her biggest challenge may be simply “not to be myself, not to be Tracy Grammer, or at least not have people perceive me that way.

“I’m an actor who’s telling a story, even if part of that story is told in song,” she added. “That’s the part I have to find.”

Grammer, who says she’s been interested in theater for a while, took two semesters of acting classes at Greenfield Community College in 2018. She’s followed that by appearing in three GCC productions, including “The Elephant Man,” and playing a key role in October in Westfield Theatre Group’s production of “Marvin’s Room.”

“When I was playing (violin) in the orchestra pit at my high school musicals, I really wanted to be up on stage,” she said with a laugh. “Now I have my chance.”

Being part of a theater ensemble, Grammer says, has proven to be “absolutely soul-filling,” a nice alternative to being a mostly solo musical act.

“I needed community,” she said. “It’s given me a way to take all the emotion and wisdom of the road and channel that into my characters … And it’s felt like a pretty natural progression after being in front of audiences over the years (as a musician) and telling a different kind of story.”

A long history

For Nelson, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “Last Request” began as a pair of novellas he published in the late 1970s and early 1980s in “The Iowa Review.” Some years later, he combined the two storylines into a screenplay and worked with a Hollywood producer to shop it around; then he wondered if he could turn the story into a play.

“I originally wrote it with a pretty big cast, then I did a version with 8 to 12 characters,” he said. “I kept whittling it down to make it more producible.”

More recently he imagined presenting the story as a podcast. Then, when he developed the play into its current format, Nelson thought “Who do I know who plays a musical instrument and could do this?” And then he thought of Grammer.

Behind all these ideas, he says, was the reaction he’d gotten from audiences when he presented the story over the years at readings: “People were crying — they were moved. When you get that kind of feedback, you want to keep working at it.”

“Last Request,” which is narrated by Katie, looks back on Kedney when she’s a graduate student at the University of Iowa in 1970. Her boyfriend, Cooley, a photographer nicknamed “F-Stop,” dies in a small plane crash as he’s returning to Iowa.

Meantime, 18-year-old Buddy, also in Iowa, is driving north to Canada to escape the Vietnam War draft when he discovers Cooley’s camera not far from the plane crash site.

This is the first of the chance encounters and strange twists of fate, both moving and humorous, that are at the heart of “Last Request.” The lives of Kedney, Buddy, and a few other characters will intersect in surprising ways in the next several years amid the Watergate hearings and the end of the Vietnam War — and Kedney will continue to carry a torch for Cooley.

Katie, meantime, who’s dealing with her own life issues now that’s she hit middle age, will finally learn the secrets of her mother’s past — and the depths of her mother’s love.

“When she asked me to write a musical about her life,” Katie relates toward the end of the play, “I told her she’d had an amazing life. She said, ‘The most amazing thing that ever happened to me was you, and your brother.’”

Nelson has written 11 songs for the play, all composed on piano, which Grammer has been transposing to guitar, some more easily than others.

“We’re still trying to work out how to do some of this,” she said. “But they’re great songs, with very sweet lyrics. I’m excited to work with someone else’s chord progressions.”

Still, “Last Request” as a whole, which flashes between images from Kedney’s past — photos projected on a screen are part of that — and Katie’s description of tending her dying mother, represents the biggest role Grammer has taken on in her new work in theater.

“There’s been a lot to learn,” she said. “But it’s fun.”

For his part, Nelson says he’s happy the project has finally made it to the finish line: “It’s been with me all this time — I think it stayed with me for a reason.”

“Last Request” will be staged Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at 30 North Maple Street in Florence; Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield; and Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. at the Drake in Amherst.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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