THE MEMBERS of the Coastal Cohorts have achieved significant success individually, but together they’ve accomplished a truly impressive feat – keeping a musical running for over 30 years. King Mackerel & the Blues Are Running is a unique show that is comprised of just three cast members and has been staged up and down the East Coast since the mid-1980s.
The trio, who has previously performed the show twice on Tybee Island, is bringing their beloved musical to the Tybee Post Theatre on Jan. 26 and 27 with proceeds going to the theatre as well as The Dolphin Project.
Jim Wann, a successful Broadway writer and composer known for his hit show Pump Boys and Dinettes, originally teamed up with Red Clay Ramblers pianist Bland Simpson and producer Don Dixon to create an environmentally-conscious show about southern coastal life. It’s become a popular production in the years since.
Ahead of the Tybee Post shows, we spoke to Dixon about the show’s history and what it’s become three decades later.
For people who may not be familiar with King Mackerel, what's the show about and how did it come together?
Dixon: Originally, a beach music band called The Embers commissioned Bland and Jim to write them a play – not really understanding what that would entail. Jim and Bland had already been successful with Diamond Studs, which was the first of these musical theatre plays they took to New York in the 70s. This was in the early 80s. So they started doing some research, making some trips, and getting ideas together.
The commission idea fell through when The Embers realized that they weren’t going to be able to deal with what a play entails. They just didn’t realize how much work was involved and how much time was involved. Jim and Bland loved the ideas they’d started coming up with, so they said, “Let’s just keep working on this ourselves.” It ultimately got to a point where they had most of the songs and a lot of the original book together. They said, “I think we can pull this off with just three guys.”
So one day they showed up at my house when I still lived in Chapel Hill [North Carolina], and said, “We need you to be the third guy in this play we’ve written.” I told them they were crazy, but they showed it to me and I liked what was going on. I already knew them both for a while and we’d worked together a lot. We staged it for the first time in 1985 at Cat’s Cradle, and it was real successful, so we kind of built it from there.
What’s the play about?
Dixon: The play is a revue-style show in that it's mostly singing, with kind of storytelling interstitial things. A hurricane has blown down Miss Mattie [Jewell]'s pier and guest house that she had at Corncake Inlet in North Carolina. We're traveling around, telling stories and trying to raise money to rebuild the Corncake Inlet Inn and help Miss Mattie get back on her feet so she doesn't have to sell out to the Greedheads.
That’s all set up in a video montage at the beginning of the play. But it’s evolved a bit over the course of the 30 years.
I was going to ask about that! How has it evolved?
Dixon: We added some songs, took some songs out, changed some stories – a few things have changed but it's still basically the same form. It's simpler in some ways, even though the original show is super solid musically. There's a PBS special that was made in '95 that's a pretty good representation of the show.
What originally drew you to doing this show?
Dixon: Just that I knew them. [Wann and Simpson] were my friends. I'd originally been a drama major in college, even though I didn't stay with that very long. So I had some sense of theater, even though I'd mostly just been a rock guy. I'd been involved with Diamond Studs, helping them figure out sound design and how you would approach musicians singing into regular band microphones and incorporating that into a plot. So I was familiar with what they were trying to accomplish and had been friends with them over all those years.
Why do you think you all keep doing this over so many years, and what keeps it exciting?
Dixon: Well, we never expected it to do anything. We had a long run with it at the Kennedy Center, and it's been done by a lot of other people besides us over the decades. It's a way for us to continue to help raise awareness for coastal issues, and be involved. We've primarily done it on the east coast, but we still take it to New York every once in a while for a long weekend. And we like each other, so it's fun to do because we don't do it that much.
The longest run we’ve ever done with it was at the Kennedy Center for six to eight weeks back in the 90s.
What’s your favorite song from the show, if you had to pick one?
Dixon: There isn't any [laughs]. It's too much of a piece – there are a couple of songs that are more "showstop-y" than others. The title song just kind of sets the mood, and the longest set piece story is about a goofy guy that tries to go fishing too soon in the seasons. But there are some beautiful, heartbreaking songs and there are some really fun and uptempo ones. It's a very interesting show – simple, but very musical. Not in a typical showtunes kind of way. It's much more rootsy-sounding than that.