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Musical Shines a Light on Willa Cather’s Time in Granite State

  • From left, Dartmouth College graduate Jocelyn Duford portrays a Jaffrey resident Nancy, Mary Niederkorn portrays Willa Cather and Rachel Coffin as Edith Lewis appear in a scene from "Kindness and Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey," a musical by Will Ogmundson and Tom Dunn. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Even if you had read Willa Cather’s novels about late 19th- and early 20th-century life on the Great Plains — particularly O Pioneers or My Antonia — you might not know that she wrote and rested for many summers in New Hampshire’s Monadnock region between the world wars.

It was certainly news to New London composer and pianist Will Ogmundson.

In 2015, a woman of some years approached Ogmundson’s collaborator, Henniker, N.H., resident Tom Dunn, at a workshop staging in Jaffrey of their musical Georgia O’Keeffe Paints Paradise.

“She asked Tom if he knew Willa Cather, and he laughed and said, ‘Not personally,’ ” Ogmundson recalled this week. “And she said, ‘Well, you know she’s buried right across the street?’ and that as a young girl she had met Willa while she was staying at (Jaffrey’s) Shattuck Inn.”

That chance encounter led to Ogmundson writing music and songs for Kindness & Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey, which completes a tour of New Hampshire in New London this weekend and begins an off-Broadway run at the Hudson Guild Theater in New York next week.

At the time, Ogmundson questioned the wisdom of staging another musical about another artist with an unconventional lifestyle, particularly one of less visibility to modern audiences.

“I thought it was a terrible idea,” Ogmundson said. “Georgia was a little easier to see, to conceive of. Who doesn’t like Hawaii?

“But then Tom wrote a brilliant libretto. He has the gift for taking ideas and turning them into magic.”

Set in the early autumn of 1938, the musical explores the relationship between Cather and her longtime companion, magazine editor, Edith Lewis, in part through the eyes of a Jaffrey girl named Nancy and in part through Cather’s writing.

“I love the language, the richness of it,” Ogmundson said. “There’s a wonderful letter to Edith that I was planning to paraphrase, but I ended up leaving it exactly the way Willa wrote it. Anything I would do would just ruin it.”

Will Ogmundson and Tom Dunn present Kindness & Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey, at Whipple Hall in New London on Saturday night at 7. Advance tickets, for $6, are available by visiting centerforthearts.org or New London’s Morgan Hill Bookstore and Tatewell Gallery. Admission at the door is $12.