‘Billy Baloo’ is born
When Michael Mason died in February this year, he left behind a loving family, but he also left behind his life’s work in the form of a musical tale that takes place in the late 1800s in a tiny mining town in the Colorado Rockies: “Billy Baloo.” Jemima James and her two sons, Willy and Sam Mason, lived with his extraordinary devotion (some might say obsession) for this epic work for more than 40 years. Now it will come to life at the M.V. Playhouse stage, beginning this weekend and running through a dozen shows.
Some Islanders might remember a musical playreading of “Billy Baloo” that took place a dozen years ago, but this upcoming show is truly a labor of love. Willy, Sam, and Jemima have given life to “Billy Baloo” (originally one of her songs), and director MJ Bruder Munafo has walked with them through the journey. As Jemima says, “It’s been like a baby that’s been gestating for 50 years, and now it’s huge and it will actually be born.”
Michael’s interests were many, including geology, music, anthropology, and writing, among others. He was a published writer in his early 20s, and had finished an album on Columbia Records, produced by Mitch Miller. He wasn’t happy with the record, though, and wouldn’t let Miller release it. MJ went through something similar with his iterations of the musical.
“I had about four different manuscripts of the play, and I kept thinking … you want to reference what was there before with the new version … and it was confusing, but I kept the last two,” she says. Then last December, MJ and Michael were talking about the Ute Native American tribe in the part of the country “Billy Baloo” is set in, and MJ told Michael there were no Native Americans in the script. “He said, ‘Well, there is one in the third act, but it’s not listed in the characters …’ There were all these characters hidden within the pages,” MJ says.
“He wouldn’t let it go. He wanted it to be in process all the time, and never be done. I grew very sick of it,” Jemima says. “It was 50 years. It was an obsession, and money was not being made, and I had two children. When Mike and I came back to talk to MJ, she said, ‘I usually throw out old scripts, but this one I couldn’t.’ That was definitely validating.”
Willy, a musician, singer, and songwriter, and his brother grew up with “Billy Baloo,” and Willy says they always thought it was cool. He is the one who took the script over and worked it into the play we’ll see on stage. Sam, a film and animation director, will do the projections.
After Michael died, MJ reached out to the family.
“She said, ‘If you and Sam are up for it, I’d like to still do it,’” Willy explained. “We looked at each other and said, Of course we’re going to do it.”
Once it was decided, Willy says, it was a matter of practicality to work on the script.
“Four days before he died, he sent me a completely different script, so I read it and thought, ‘OK, if this is really going to happen, this is kind of impossible.’ So I started to pick away at it, and it felt really natural to me. I felt like I was guided through the whole process. I brought my first draft to MJ, and that was hugely helpful.” He said he worked on a few things right away — fewer characters, fewer scenes. “We were just talking through the mechanics of producing, staging a play, and I just went backward from there … how can this be on the stage, and how can we cram all these important points. I went back and forth with MJ and my mom, and a couple of friends who are writers.”
“You did such an amazing job,” MJ tells Willy.
I asked Willy what “Billy Baloo” is about.
“The story is about a young lady who inherits her mother’s store in a gold-boom town in Colorado, and she convinces a floater there, Billy Baloo, to help her get groceries up the mountain, and he does so with the help of the beavers … I wouldn’t want to give too much away …”
I asked about Billy Baloo.
“He’s moored, but not ashore. A drifter that can’t bother to drift. Elusive but good-natured. He has an aversion to prospecting, mining, or work in general,” Willy says.
“He likes to sit on the river and fish,” Jemima adds.
MJ, Jemima, and Willy talk about the play as if it’s its own entity, alive and about to make its grand entrance. Bill Peek, music director of the First Congregational Church and the Island Community Chorus, is the musical director of the play, with music and lyrics by Jemima, Michael, and Willy. MJ heard Willy play with singer Lexie Roth, and thought she would make the perfect Ada Evans, the young lady who comes to town to manage the grocery store. Willy plays Billy Baloo. Michael’s old friend Phil Lee, who lives in California, was his choice for playing Billy Baloo, but that was 40 years ago. Lee is coming to the Vineyard, and will play a different character, Mil.
Opening weekend is going to be all about Michael. Friends and family are coming to see the musical, and they’ll gather in his memory over the weekend at the Tashmoo Springs waterworks.
“Mike was very charming and convincing and brilliant and articulate,” Jemima says. “He was really excited about it [“Billy Baloo”], and I think he felt like for the first time, he might let it work. I think the timing is right. I don’t feel sad or regretful, I feel like it’s right. I did say to him, ‘It’s such a great play, but I don’t think we’re going to put it on until you’re dead,’ and he would laugh. He would’ve been a nervous wreck … he was so invested in it. It’s easier this way.”
They promise the play is filled with social justice references and will be a joy to watch — “a hoot,” MJ says.
“His personality is all in the songs and in these scenes,” Jemima says. “He’s all over it. It’s the essence of Mike … the best parts.”