When the movie "Twelve Angry Men" debuted in 1957, its actors were all middle-aged white guys. In an era when audiences expect plays to depict the world as it is, can those angry men still speak to us?
As they prepare for Saturday's world premiere at Theater Latté Da, creators of a new musical adaptation say they never doubted that the piece is relevant. Composer Michael Holland and book writer David Simpatico believe the story — which originated as a TV movie in 1954, written by Reginald Rose — gained urgency as they wrote.
But, like all new musicals, Latté Da's "Twelve Angry Men" faced challenges.
'Twelve Angry' who?
To create roles for a wider swath of actors, the melodrama about jurors deciding the fate of a Spanish-speaking defendant accused of murder often has been performed with men and women, and retitled "Twelve Angry People." But one of the first things that was clear is that the men would stay men.
"The Rose estate would not allow us to explore gender in that way and, to be honest, I think for good reason," said director Peter Rothstein. "The play is as much about toxic masculinity as anything — what sons inherit from their fathers, and a judicial system built by men. Women shouldn't be forced to take responsibility for what the play puts forward."
Although altering genders was discussed, changing the late-1950s setting wasn't. Simpatico and Holland have stuck with it since they wrote their first draft over Skype in 2012 (it was commissioned by a theater that didn't produce it).
"It's a classic because it speaks to human behavior and truth," Simpatico said. "[It] sits people down and makes them talk. It's been done a bazillion times because it's good."
The creators always knew they wanted to be more inclusive than the movie. That conversation became specific after Latté Da got involved four years ago. One question was whether to specify race in the script or leave that to the artists' interpretation.
"I said, 'We need to have cultural specificity across the character breakdown, in that Juror Number 8, the Henry Fonda [in the 1957 movie] or Jack Lemmon [in a 1997 TV remake] role, could not be a white actor. We have enough shows about racism with white heroes," Rothstein said.
At Latté Da, that role is played by Curtis Bannister, who is Black. Simpatico said it helped to envision specific actors as he wrote, even incorporating their experiences with racism and injustice.
The cast includes four Black actors and a Korean American, whose characters discuss their backgrounds — including, for instance, a conversation in which men contrast what it's like to emigrate here from Europe or Mexico. A juror played by T. Mychael Rambo provides an opportunity to look at how aging can make one feel invisible.
"I think it's impossible to separate the racism from toxic masculinity from nationalism from xenophobia from ageism," said Rothstein. "Not that everyone is guilty of all of them but it is all intertwined."
Making it sing
When Holland was approached about "Twelve Angry Men," he said, "I could immediately hear these late-'50s jazz sounds. The Hi-Lo's are a big influence. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross — that kind of jittery, vibrating, aggressive sound."
"It's a lot of notes," joked music director Denise Prosek. "There's always an unsettled, super-interesting, evocative chord structure. Once everyone hears what this music is going to be, they're going to go, 'I want to do that!' It's sort of a dream to work on."
The '50s era suggested not just the seemingly improvised sound but also the makeup of the band. Prosek has put together a guitar/drums/bass/trumpet/piano combo like one that might have played New York's Village Vanguard in the 1950s.
"Michael keeps using the word 'scrappy.' He wants it to sound like they are eking out a living in clubs," Prosek said.
The songs nod to musical theater as well as jazz. But just as they sound different from conventional musicals, the question of who sings and when are answered differently. There are songs but, until the finale, they are dispersed in bits throughout the dialogue, creating tension between what is sung and what is spoken.
That tension suits the piece, which is largely about having the courage to change our minds, Prosek said.
"Musical theater does not always lend itself to nuance very well. But Michael and David have been able to craft songs that are nuanced. It's not a huge emotional play in the sense that you would need a song like 'One Day More' from 'Les Miz.' "
About the discourse
"Bradley Greenwald [who plays a juror] said in rehearsal the other day, 'This is very much like "1776" in that everyone knows the outcome," Rothstein noted. "We don't necessarily know it exactly but, chances are that 20 minutes in, you probably can guess the ending. But it's more about the discourse."
The creators said it's been thrilling to participate in difficult, searching conversations about race, justice and empathy. They credit the hopefulness of Rose's original script, which insists that people with conflicting views can gather, listen and come to an agreement.
"The jurors bring in all their own biases and experiences and it's just who they are," said Prosek. "At the same time, through discussions and facts, they're able to change their minds, based on what is presented in front of them. That's a big lesson we all need."
'Twelve Angry Men'
Who: By Michael Holland and David Simpatico. Directed by Peter Rothstein.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 17.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13 Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks and proof of vaccination (or negative COVID test) required.
Tickets: $35-$55, 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.