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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gets Nashville Debut!

Songwriter Don Schlitz shows off his musical theater chops with 'Tom Sawyer'

BY FIONA SOLTES • FOR THE TENNESSEAN

Sure, songwriter Don Schlitz has a roster of chart-topping hits as long as his arm. But make no mistake; just 'cause he looks like a hard worker on paper doesn't mean he still wouldn't rather find someone else to paint his fence.

He chuckles at the fact there's a bit of Tom Sawyer in all of us, that streak of laziness where we'd rather spend "10 times the energy getting other people to do something rather than do it ourselves."
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He chuckles, too, at the idea of his first foray into musical theater landing on Broadway. But that it did, with one critic saying his songs were "so firmly grounded in the American rural experience" as to seem we had learned them in childhood and only recently rediscovered them.

This week, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which Schlitz wrote with Tony-Award winning playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You), hits Nashville Dinner Theatre at the Senior Center for the Arts. It might seem that it's just another effortless win for Schlitz, but don't let his easy manner or self-deprecation fool you: Tom Sawyer was literally years in the making back in the 1990s, and he wrote about 170 songs for the piece, trying to get it just right.

"I had a lot of studying to do," said the man who also wrote or co-wrote songs such as "The Gambler," "Forever and Ever, Amen" and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."

"It was a learning experience and very exciting to see if I could do it. I know that it made me a better songwriter. It's always good to stretch. . . . If you're fortunate enough to have a long career in this business — and I have been fortunate — with that good fortune comes responsibility. It means you've got to try and do better."

When Schlitz and Ludwig first considered the idea of working together, they quickly discovered a mutual admiration for author Mark Twain, whom Schlitz describes as "the quintessential American."

"He had a great, fast mind, and was a bit of a cynic, but a bit of a true believer, too," he said. "Wholesome with a wink in his eye. He understood the human condition — especially the American human condition."

Twain's stories of the mischievous young boy growing up in the antebellum South were a perfect fit for Schlitz's own country manner, and had it not been for the fact that it opened in New York at virtually the same time as the blockbuster hit The Producers, the show may have enjoyed even greater success.

As it is, however, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer does what Schlitz always hoped it would do: It offers high school groups, community theaters and other smaller organizations across the country the chance to have some fun and "get their acting chops."

"That's great, isn't it?" he said. "That's what Tom Sawyer is all about: showing off."

Kaine Riggan, artistic director for Nashville Dinner Theatre, says he chose the musical in part because it offers numerous roles for kids, and he can tie in his group's Summer Theatre Camp. Beyond that, however, he's excited to feature the work of a local — as well as to give Nashville musicians a chance to play the music they love to play.

"We won't have any shortage of wonderful musicians for this band," Riggan said. "The show does have a country feel to it; you can tell Don wrote it. He's an incredibly talented songwriter, and charming on top of that. But a lot of times, we're taking country musicians and throwing them into Kander and Ebb, or Sondheim. But with these charts, they'll feel right at home."

No doubt, Schlitz will feel at home with the show, too. Just don't expect him to make a spectacle, should he be in the audience.

"I'll think I'll be hiding there in the back, to see if anyone claps at all," he said. "I just hope it's well-received. I'm sure I'll go to see the show, but I'll just sneak in and be a regular patron."

A regular patron, that is, with an ear for a good song, a shelf full of awards and a fence that he may never get around to painting himself.

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