NEW ORLEANS -- It started with a reporter covering one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.
“I had gotten so focused on the ‘thing,’ on the event, you know the levees, National Guard, housing,” said writer Dan Baum. “I was missing the bigger story which is this unbelievable place.”
Out of author Dan Baum's frustration, the book Nine Lives was born - an ode to New Orleans, and even more so, to its people.
"There is a rhythm. You can sit and have a conversation with somebody in New Orleans and be tapping your foot,” Baum said. “Just the way people tell stories, just the way they use the language, and it translates so well to the music."
But the storm was the last thing singer-songwriter Paul Sanchez wanted to write about. "I was in a place where I was trying to get over all the things that happened in the flood. I wanted to move on,” Sanchez said.
But at the persistence of his longtime friend and screenwriter Colman deKay, Sanchez read Nine Lives and was inspired to co-write a musical, with songs about the story's characters in genres to fit their personalities.
That includes a well-known New Orleanian: coroner Dr. Frank Minyard.
“Frank's always traditional jazz,” Sanchez said, describing other characters in the play. “Belinda, since she didn’t really want to be in New Orleans when she was a little girl, is always piano and violins and acoustic guitars. And Billy Grace has touches of classical music to his songs, for the Uptown touch."
The album came first. It was recorded in the Piety St. Studio, a collaboration of more than 100 musicians and actors and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The album debuts in stores and online Tuesday. The production was made possible by a $50,000 grant and, like Baum’s book, also followed the lives of a band director, a New Orleans police officer, a Ninth Ward native and a Mardi Gras Indian's wife.
"I wanted black, white, rich, poor,” Baum said. “Black, white, in between, as New Orleans is. Rich, poor, in between. Male, female, in between. This is New Orleans.”
"I'm pretty much in between all the way around," said Joann Guidos, whose life is portrayed in the musical. Guidos met Baum during the storm while trying to protect her bar and her patrons. But her story begins when she was known as John.
“I just lived my life the way I saw fit. I didn't know there would be a whole story about my whole life," she said. Portraying Joann will be Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris.
"The songs about me, I just get chills running down my spine,” Guidos said. “I just couldn’t believe how well done they were. I’m really wondering where it’s going to go once it hits the streets."
The streets of Broadway is where they want the show to end up. And Paul Sanchez says, with Cerveris by his side, it’s possible. "It helps to have a Tony Award-winning actor with 20 years of Broadway experience," Sanchez said.
Cerveris has been in talks with producers and set up a performance in New York to debut the music.
Organizers are now meeting with representatives of New York theaters to help them take the musical adaptation to a full production, in hopes of one day playing on Broadway.
Cerveris believes a story with New Orleans’ culture and people at its core is what Broadway needs right now. "I don’t see how it could fail to happen,” Cerveris said. “Will it be on Broadway? It should be. And if it’s not, there’s something wrong with Broadway. It’s not because something’s wrong with the piece." It is a piece of work Paul Sanchez says he will never regret.