- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

Ask Phoef Sutton why a theater production exploring the lives of pioneers and the songs of the prairie is having its world premiere in the decidedly nonrural city of Washington and he'll tell you this is a natural place for it.

The way he figures, "Songs From the Tall Grass" is connected to Ford's Theatre, which was a new addition to the city around the same time Easterners began the long journey westward to settle on the Plains in the early 1860s.

"People were leaving the relative comfort of the East Coast and going to this place where there was nothing to subsist on," Mr. Sutton, 42, says in a phone interview. It was survival at its most basic, he says.

The D.C. native was one of the collaborators on "Songs From the Tall Grass," a collection of songs, letters, journals and stories of the men and women who made their way to America's heartland, in search of land they eventually could call theirs.

"Songs From the Tall Grass," which begins previews March 13, was itself part of another search — one for the music of that time and place. An old friend of Mr. Sutton's, composer Randy Hale, and his wife, Emily Corey, wanted to explore the heritage of forgotten prairie songs.

"We were sitting around discussing the songs of the period, and [Mr. Hale and Miss Corey] were talking about driving through the area they are from" in Oklahoma, Mr. Sutton says.

He says they came back with hundreds of old songbooks — some that they had found in libraries and antique stores. They had photocopies of some songbooks, while others nearly disintegrated when they put them on the copier. They occasionally had to rely on generous souls willing to warble into a tape recorder in order to get a song.

"While much has been done to revive the musical traditions of Appalachia, the Eastern seaboard, the Ozarks and the South, the songs that were sung in the soddies, the prairie schoolhouses, two-room homesteads and at barn socials on the great American prairie in the 19th century have been all but lost," says Frankie Hewitt,, Ford Theatre's producing artistic director.

Mr. Sutton says "Songs From the Tall Grass" follows a family, loosely based on Mr. Hale's ancestors with elements from Mr. Sutton's own history, for a generation as it moves West.

In an effort to promote settlement west of the Mississippi, the federal government passed the Homestead Act of 1862, giving 160 acres free to anyone who had lived on and cultivated the land for at least five years.

"Songs From the Tall Grass" is a return to the stage for many of the collaborators: Mr. Hale, author Michael Ross, director Will Mackenzie and Mr. Sutton, who says he hasn't worked in the theater since getting into television dozens of years ago.

He has been involved with several television series, even winning two Emmys for his work on the long-running sitcom "Cheers." His most recent TV venture, "The Fighting Fitzgeralds," debuted on NBC this week. He says he has a project for Disney in the works and also another pilot planned.

Not content to limit himself to the small screen, Mr. Sutton has also written a couple of screenplays, including the Wesley Snipes-Robert De Niro thriller "The Fan." His first novel, "Always Six O'Clock," was published in 1998.

Nevertheless, the resident of Pasadena, Calif., says his roots are in the theater.

"I started as an actor and a playwright in college. My basic home is writing for the theater," says Mr. Sutton, who grew up in Alexandria, attended the now-defunct Fort Hunt High School there and graduated from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., in 1980. He adds that many of the TV shows he has done, such as "Cheers," are very theatrical in their pacing and structure.

In discovering the music of the prairie, Mr. Sutton says he was struck by "how emotionally sincere it was."

"There wasn't any sense of irony and cleverness that people look for now," he says.

"We had to take the leap and see if people would accept this or think it's corny. There's songs about death, love, childhood — the fundamental stuff about life. We really wanted to find the way to give these things a new life."

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