It all started in a low-lit New York City lounge.
Jim Wann (guitar) and Mark Hardwick (piano) played country standards every night, eventually adding their own compositions to their repertoire. They soon donned matching uniforms and name tags, pretending to be gas station attendants, and called themselves the Pump Boys. The duo grew into a four-piece band. Then they met the Dinettes, a duo of singers who performed a show as diner waitresses. The groups quickly merged together and grew in popularity around the city, playing at nightclubs and parties.
Producers took notice and helped them take the show to Off-Broadway and, subsequently, Broadway. Before they knew it, they were performing on national television at the Tony Awards when “Pump Boys and Dinettes” was nominated for Best Musical of 1982.
“It was all very organic,” says Wann, who now has a home on Tybee Island. “The show was very unusual for the time and still is in certain ways.”
“Pump Boys” is a unique hybrid of concert and play in which the characters perform all of the music on stage. Since its debut, other musicals, like “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Once,” have mimicked its style.
“In retrospect, it was influential,” says Wann. “It’s nice that this is becoming a small trend in the big world of Broadway.”
The Savannah Repertory Theatre is capping off its current season with a production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” For Nick Corley, associate artistic director of Savannah Rep, casting the show was kind of like putting together a band.
“I don’t know how they do what they do because it’s not just learning lines for a show,” says Corley. “The music is played by the cast, so they’re learning the songs, playing instruments, figuring out what they’re going to play, blocking, and still remembering their lines. I’m always amazed by actor/musicians.”
Leading the cast is Ryan McCurdy, who plays Wann’s role. McCurdy has appeared on Broadway and has had great success in Off-Broadway productions of “Once.” He can play 12 instruments and has triple duty on “Pump Boys” as band leader, star and musical director.
“What’s great about this show is you always build it around the strengths of the acting musicians you have,” says Corley.
Corley also is excited that the cast reflects a more contemporary, diverse and “gender fluid” community. The show has been produced the same way for decades, and Wann has been calling for more inclusive casting.
“The cast is so genuine and their performances were so real, I just think it’s very exciting,” says Wann. “I’m grateful to Savannah Rep and I’m grateful that they’re doing it in a different way.”
The production benefits greatly from having the original composer live in close proximity. Wann gave the cast valuable advice about guitar accents and other musical details.
“Jim was able to stop by around his busy schedule to spend some music time with us, which was hugely important, because he wrote two-thirds of the songs in the show,” says Corley. “He was able to come in and give a more authentic feel to the music.”
Corley believes “Pump Boys” is about community and that their production reflects the spirit of community that inhabits Savannah.
“The characters on stage support each other and their dreams and ambitions and the daily task of just getting through life every day,” explains Corley. “Jim says, ‘These people have big dreams and working-class souls.’”
For Wann, it is gratifying to see his work still performed over 35 years after he conceived of the show in smoky New York bars.
“This was half my life ago that I was doing this in the city, so I’m totally pleased that young folks want to do this and are having such a good time with it,” says Wann.