As a pianist played a gospel tune to a full house in a church basement on Thursday, William M. Hannay joined a motley crew of characters performing their final song before curtain call.
“Praise the law,” the Schiff Hardin LLP partner sang, reminiscent of tunes that may be more common in St. Bonaventure’s upstairs. “Great golly, it protects you and me.”
In the Chicago staging of “Naked Lunch: The Musical,” the rapturous finale celebrated the exoneration of what Hannay called “the dirtiest book ever written.”
Hannay wrote the book and lyrics for the one-act, inspired-by-real-events musical that runs at the St. Sebastian Players Theatre at St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1625 W. Diversey Parkway, this weekend. Before its Windy City debut, it had performances in the Ivy Leagues and a theater in Venice, Calif.
As part of a committee that organized the 50-year reunion for the Yale University Class of 1966, Hannay and his former classmate Damon Baker had about a year to plan entertainment for the approximately 600 former classmate attendees.
Hannay drew some inspiration from one of his colleagues — J. Mark Fisher, a Yale graduate from the Class of 1975 and a fellow partner at Schiff Hardin — who had sang with his a cappella group in a cabaret for a recent reunion event.
“I wanted to go one better than Mark,” Hannay said, laughing.
Hannay brainstormed major events that happened during his college years and came up with the 1962 American publication of “Naked Lunch,” by William S. Burroughs. The work was originally published in France in 1959.
Hannay said he and all his freshman peers read the nonlinear vignettes narrated by a junkie expecting it to get lewd in a good way.
“It was just kind of gross,” Hannay said. “It wasn’t sexy.”
In the middle of Hannay’s college years, the book was at the center of an obscenity trial in Boston, where characters like novelist Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Norman Mailer showed up to testify to the novel’s literary and social value. This is where the musical begins.
In the musical, the prosecutor character describes the book as babble, containing “234 dirty words on 235 pages.” A prosecutor’s witness from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union describes its obscenity as capable of devolving humanity back into primordial goo.
However, an expert on the written word who serves as a witness for the defense claims it’s a work of “high talent,” capturing how real people speak in an authentic way and showing a generation’s collective disbelief in the words of men who have too much money and who control too much.
Hannay got a transcription of the circuit court trial. As he read the almost surreal real-life events, he pictured staging Ginsberg walking into the witness stand barefoot to read his own poem inspired by Burroughs’ book and Mailer taking every opportunity to testify about how great of a writer he (Mailer, not Burroughs) was. Hannay knew he had his source material.
As Hannay discussed the idea with his former classmate and fellow reunion planner, Baker, an architectural designer who also plays piano recreationally, mentioned that he had composed several song ideas that had never had lyrics written for them.
As Baker played around on the piano, testing out jazzy, operatic and gospel tunes, Hannay saw characters and choruses forming. Hannay said his creativity was “uncorked” and he would often write songs’ lyrics overnight.
“It was all clicking,” he said.
Hannay studied English and theatrical directing and was a news reporter for Stars and Stripes after serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. Before “Naked Lunch: The Musical,” he had written more than 30 amateur skits and plays, including spoofs of well-known songs for past college reunions and plays that were performed in the Chicago Yacht Club’s dining space by and for fellow club members.
He said his day job of lawyering isn’t so different from playwriting anyway.
“How are you going to tell your story?” Hannay said he asks himself as he prepares a case. He said there’s a “big element of drama” in trial and even in briefs and that preparing a cross-examination is just like writing a script.
For the Yale reunion performance, former classmates rehearsed by telephone conference calls. The musical consists almost entirely of solo songs, so each actor would hit play on an MP3 recording of the accompanying music and sing along to it.
Hannay said expectations were low before the performance at the reunion, and that he saw jaws drop during the show.
“What I had long ago decided was if people don’t like this show, they’re idiots and I don’t care what they think,” Hannay said.
After seeing the musical performed at the reunion, Hannay said a classmate offered to underwrite renting a space, getting a band and performing it in the Los Angeles area. Most of the original cast flew out to the Golden State to perform at a small theatre called the Electric Lodge in Venice, California on Oct. 20 and 22, 2016. Hannay said it was a box office failure — except for some strangers who just happened to see poster advertisements and think it might be interesting — but an artistic success.
But the Chicago run began strong with a sold out premiere Thursday. There will be two more showings, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at 1625 W. Diversey Pkwy.
While most roles are played by the Yale graduates who pioneered the characters, the courtroom setting and lyricist aren’t the musical’s only ties to Chicago’s legal community.
Fisher, Hannay’s Schiff Hardin and Yacht Club colleague and a baritone of his own right, plays an American publisher who first rejects the book on grounds of obscenity, singing, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you — maybe.”
Fred Joseph, who attended law school at Loyola University Chicago and is a Chicago Bar Association member, drew laughs and even a few hoots Thursday evening as a heavily accented version of the French publisher who first released “The Naked Lunch” to readers. As he sings, “Though it seems a little dated, the dough will flow if it’s X-rated.”
Finally, James Munson, a retired trial lawyer turned local stage and commercial actor, plays the judge.
Hannay also added two women characters, as the original staging for the all-male Class of 1966 only had male characters. One, a children’s librarian who testifies about how titillating and damaging an obscene book can be for a child, is played by a musical theater major from Roosevelt University, Julia Walls. Walls does the splits to end her solo piece and the prosecutor runs over to throw his hands up above her, then declares that the prosecution rests its case as he “can’t top that.”
With frequent digs at Harvard University, a jab at Samuel Beckett and a one-man tango, “Naked Lunch: The Musical” brings a 1960s Massachusetts Supreme Court decision to new life.
Tickets are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2891715 or at the door for $25.