Q&A: Signature musical ‘Blackbeard’ explores history’s most notorious pirate

His very name is synonymous with the most notorious pirate who ever sailed the high seas.

Now, his life becomes a musical in the world premiere of “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre, written by John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana Rowe (music), who have previously collaborated on “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Zombie Prom,” “The Fix” and “Brother Russia.”

“[Artistic Director] Eric Schaeffer had this idea that he wanted to turn the theater into a pirate ship, basically like a 3D experience for the audience,” Dempsey told WTOP. “He didn’t have a specific pirate [in mind], so we started researching. The first one that always comes up on lists is Blackbeard, so we started to do a little research and it turns out he was fairly interesting.”

The story follows Captain Blackbeard, who is wanted by the British army. In order to escape, he forms a merry crew on a ship called the Queen Anne’s Revenge, embarking on a global high-seas adventure that raises an undead pirate army from the bottom of the ocean.

“Every time he would go into battle, he would stick cannon fuses into his beard and light his beard on fire, so that when the enemy would see him, he would look like some sort of mythic beast,” Dempsey said. “That interested me because first of all it’s theater, it’s an actor putting on a costume, but it also suggested that it’s a man who wanted to be a myth. I thought that’s an interesting idea for a musical — a guy who wants to be something bigger and better.”

The title role of Blackbeard goes to Chris Hoch, star of Broadway’s “Shrek” and “Matilda.”

“He is absolutely tremendous,” Dempsey said. “He’s amazing. He looks like he’s about 10-foot-2 on stage. I’ve never seen someone look bigger on stage. He’s a tall guy.”

He’s backed by an ensemble cast of Kevin McAllister, Maria Egler, Nova Payton, Rory Boyd, Christopher Mueller, Larry Redmond, Awa Sal Secka, Bobby Smith and Ben Gunderson.

“It’s an amazing cast,” Dempsey said. “We have 10 people in the cast who play about 60 roles between them. There’s one actress who has 16 costume changes in a 90-minute show! They work so hard, they all have amazing voices, they’re all fantastic actors and they all had to learn how to sword fight, which there is a lot of in the show. There are not a lot of musicals that have action sequences. … You’re more likely to see sword fighting in a play than a musical.”

Schaeffer directs the swashbuckling action with choreographer Matthew Gardiner, scenic designer Paul Tate de Poo III, lighting designer Chris Lee, costumer designer Erik Teague and wig designer Anne Nesmith as the ship travels the world from Japan to India to Norway.

“The team at Signature Theatre has turned the theater into this huge ship,” Rowe said. “The whole thing takes place on the pirate ship. The audience is going to feel like they’re part of it.”

The high-seas visuals are carried by a never-before-heard songbook.

“It’s an adventure musical, it’s an adventure fantasy,” Rowe said. “Take a little Errol Flynn, take a little ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and shake it up really well. It’s fun. It has a bit of a movie score, a cinematic feel to it. There’s a lot of rollicking fun with the pirates as they take the stage.”

It’s all performed by a live eight-piece band that “sounds like 24” musicians.

“We have guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, electric bass, keyboards and two percussionists,” Rowe said. “What I’m particularly excited about is to have a dedicated percussionist, as well as a drummer/percussionist. It’s big and bawdy.”

Audiences of all ages are encouraged to dress up in their best pirate garb.

“It’s a fabulous show for the whole family,” Rowe said. “We’ve noticed that the audiences are loving it — the children as well as the adults. … Last night was great. We heard kids deciding, ‘You be heave, I’ll be ho.’ That’s kind of fun. They’re identifying with the characters and deciding which team they’re for, whether it’s Team Roger or Team Blackbeard or whatever.”

What’s the thematic take-away as we exit the theater?

“Message wise, I think what they go home with is that it’s about the adventure, it’s about the journey,” Dempsey said. “It’s not necessarily about the treasure, it’s about the acquiring of the treasure. It’s about just enjoying life and appreciating this moment, right here, right now.”

That and there’s friggin’ pirates.

“Who doesn’t love pirates?” Rowe said. “Swashes are buckled everywhere!”

Learn more on the theatre website. Hear our full chat with John Dempsey & Dana Rowe below:

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