RUBY!: THE STORY OF RUBY BRIDGES
by Christina Ham
Book and lyric by Christina Ham
Music by Gary Rue
“The story of a young girl struggling on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in 1960 New Orleans, learns first hand about the importance of education, friendship, and courage as she bravely attends one of the nation's first integrated schools. Ruby is a true inspiration whose story is as relevant today as ever.”
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The Road To Ruby!: A series of seemingly unconnected events…
OK, I want to tell the story of how this came to be, and why it was such an absolute joy to be a part of. It’s a bit of a wordy tale, but there are enough interesting people we’ll meet along the way to make it, well, interesting. Here goes…
In 1964 I heard/saw/felt the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Nothing odd about that in the musical community, really, most of my peers share that beginning. This happened in Tracy, a small town in SW Minnesota, population 1982. Of course, we were mightily encouraged by nearly everyone around us (except our art and drama instructors) to ignore this pop phenomenon…that path lead straight to hell. But oh, we loved that quartet! So we formed a band and called it (eventually) The Sensational Sleepers (still playing today!). But after a couple of years of playing beautiful (but breezy) pop tunes, we were looking for something new. My band mates and I had taken to showing up at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall to see any one of the exciting the attractions out of Lawrence, Kansas (!): The Fabulous Flippers, Spider and the Crabs, the Seven Suns; multi racial bands, playing incredibly vibrant songs by artists such as Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, , Martha & the Vandellas, the Shirelles, Carla Thomas, …you get the idea. This bent was also duly noted by the towns folk as a sure (perhaps even more sure) path to Hell, so naturally we were even more attracted to the concept. So here is a quintet of 16 year old white boys in rural Minnesota positively reveling in the joy of what was then termed ‘race music’.
Well, the band broke up, as bands do. Fast forward to 1978. I got a call to music direct a performance for The Shirelles at the Duluth Convention Center.
Showtime was to be 8pm. 7:30, no Shirelles. 7:45, no Shirelles, 8pm, no Shirelles, so we took to the stage fully prepared to take the place of the Shirelles if need be (right…). 8:05pm, Micki, Doris and Beverly sweep onto the stage to wild applause from the four thousand kids in the audience. Doris begins the introduction to the first song, and I’m hissing “pssssst!!!” to Beverly. She turns around and whispers warmly back (with this BIG smile on her face): “Don’t worry, honey, most everything’s in “Bb”, just watch me, I’ll take care of you, you’ll be alright.” We had been given a hand written play list, they stuck to it, and you know what? Everything WAS alright!
The next day, I took a taxi with the trio to Grand Rapids, MN (100 miles or so). I was squeezed in the back between Micki and Beverly, complaining about how hard it was to ‘make it’ in the music business. Doris, from the front seat, turns and says, “Well, honey (they called everybody ‘honey’), maybe you just haven’t paid your dues.” “I’ve paid my dues!”. I cried. Doris, a bit impatient with this spoiled little cream puff, spoke firmly: “Well, honey, who’s to say when you’ve paid enough?” I learned more in the 2 hour taxi ride then I’ve learned in a life time of doin’ it.
Fast forward, 2012. I get a call from Richard Hitchler, (then) Artistic Director for SteppingStone Theatre of St Paul. He’d been talking to Christina Ham about a music theatre piece about Ruby Bridges (the first black girl to integrate the schools in New Orleans in 1960). Had a meeting with Richard and Christina. They thought a nice musical direction might be early the pop sound of early 60s African American girl groups, like…the Shirelles, for instance? Well, yes, come to think of it, I DO have a wee bit of experience with this genre… I had all of this sleeping knowledge and passion for this kind of music, and it was pure joy to awaken it, and I think we got some very good songs out of the deal. Around this time, and coincidentally (VERY coincidentally), I was trudging around the halls of McNally Smith College of Music (where I happen to teach Songwriting and ‘Creating Music Theatre’), and someone calls out to anyone who might be listening, “I hear Grand Casino in Hinckley is looking for someone to put together a rhythm section for the Shirelles show on New Years Eve. Anybody?” “Right here!” I says.
Hmmm. Full circle. By this time, I had completed my favorite song from the show, “Melt the Troubles of This World”, and, forever thinking beyond my reach, thought, “I could call Johnny Hagen from Absolute Music (who was the guitarist on that first night in Duluth waaaayyyy back in ‘78), grab a location recording rig, and beg The Shirelles to do the promo demo.” I was, of course, naively optimistic (but why not go for it, right?). Doris and Micki had passed on by then, having been replaced by two younger women, and Beverly was in her 80s. When I finally got to meet her again that night (after 34 years), she didn’t remember me, didn’t want to chat, and wanted only to do the show and go home. (I don’t blame her at all, 50 years of doing Shirelles hits, not to mention the subtle barriers one runs into being a Black.
She was tired. I happily let it go, but had a wonderful trip down memory lane playing with the Shirelles one last time.
So SteppingStone Theatre debuted “Ruby!” in 2012, again in 2015, and yet again this coming February!
Here is a ‘still’ video of “Melt the Troubles of This World” from last year’s production:
Ruby! Is particularly poignant at this point in time, given the mood of our nation, the bigotry spouted by some from the podium, the racism ignored by many. This is a show about healing, not division, and I hope it goes on to great, great things. President Obama has a Norman Rockwell painting hanging in his office, “The Problem We All Live With” (at top. We have a song in the musical that references this mood called “The Problem That We Live With”). It’s a depiction of little 12 year old Ruby walking to her first day of school surrounded by federal marshals, and this video shows a grown-up Ruby speaking about the painting (and her life) with President Obama.
I am so proud of this work, and so grateful to have been asked to be a part of it. Congratulations, Christina, for creating such a relevant and moving piece, and thank you thanks to Richard Hitchler for bringing us together.. Everyone, please go see this show. Especially NOW.
Musicals 4 Young Audiences does not have the privilege of being acting publisher for RUBY! (I hear an NYC company of some repute is interested), but here’s one we DO have that Christina and I wrote together, another timely piece called “A Lion’s Tale".