Amherst Magazine

Setting Murder to Music

By E.G.B.

Everyone knows that Ford’s Theatre is where John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in 1865. A real trivia buff might recall that Lincoln was in the theater to see the play Our American Cousin. But practically nobody can say what the show was actually about.

More than a decade ago, before the Internet made quick work of such research, composer Eric Sawyer, an assistant professor of music, and his friend John Shoptaw, a librettist, set out to learn the plot of the play. They found a comedy of manners involving a clumsy American frontiersman with a heart of gold who travels to England to visit relatives. “It’s like the silliest Broadway show you can think of,” Sawyer says.

Sawyer and Shoptaw turned the tale into an opera, also called Our American Cousin (www.ouramericancousin.com). It premiered on campus in March. The opera depicts the final hours of Lincoln’s life from the point of view of the actors in the theater that night. The first act shows the backstage intrigue. The second recreates the play’s plot and includes asides by Lincoln, Booth and others. The third act is about the assassination and its aftermath.

The opera tells the story of Laura Keene, star and manager of the play’s theater company, who had met Lincoln and felt responsible for his death. Shoptaw invents a backstory for Harry Hawk, the actor who played the American cousin that night. In the opera’s telling, Hawk bears a burden of guilt for hiring a substitute to serve for him in the Civil War (a common action in that day).

Shoptaw takes other dramatic liberties in the libretto. The historical record shows, for example, that before the performance Booth handed a letter to one of the actors, Jack Mathews. The letter supposedly explained what Booth was about to do. Mathews later testified that he carried the unopened letter during his performance (he played an evil lawyer) and then burned it in fear. “Nobody knows quite what the letter says,” according to Sawyer. “John got to invent what was in it.”

The March premiere was a concert performance only, with no costumes and limited stage direction. It featured the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Amherst College Concert Choir. The stage premiere is scheduled for September 29-30 at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass. The Academy is about the same size and age as Ford’s Theatre, Sawyer says, and the most celebrated actor in Keene’s Broadway production of Our American Cousin, E. A. Sothern, also appeared on the Academy stage.