by Ryan Breegle
Much has been written about country / pop songwriter Marcus Hummon’s new theater work, Surrender Road. As a Nashville Opera debut, this piece uses more than four different musical styles (jazz, blues, musical theater, gospel among them) in a cycle of songs mixing Hummon’s lyrics and Shakespeare’s words to tell the story of the chance meeting of Manuel the boxer and Emily the artist. There is no speaking; every word is sung, leading Nashville Opera to see their connection and sponsor the debut performance, a very brave move for the company. Surrender Road is an extraordinary feat and a massive undertaking, I’m just not sure the outcome is really worth the hype and build-up.
On paper, the story of Surrender Road reads like an enjoyable drama with plot twists and ironic coincidences. Manuel the boxer is paid to lose matches, and he only goes through with it after the life of his friend and trainer Willie is threatened. Emily the artist sells one painting at her opening, but that sole benefactor also writes her a note suggesting she do herself a favor and give up painting. Both are paid to lose, to quit. They meet, feel a connection, and find worth in one another.
I had read that Hummon’s lyrics in Surrender Road would have ‘occasional usage of passages of verbatim Shakespeare text,’ but it seemed that everywhere one turned there was another familiar Shakespeare line. And usually one line was accompanied by line after line from one of his sonnets or tragedies or comedies. The unfortunate part of that is that I began to crave the words of Shakespeare over the words of Hummon. Even in this modern age, the lines that were not only more clever but also more appropriate and moving were those of Shakespeare. I felt the two did not mix well at all.
I am not a fan of modern musicals, and this could be the reason I did not enjoy Surrender Road as much as I had hoped. I prefer the music I hear in theatrical productions to be of a classical nature, crafted with originality but also with the notion of familiarity, such that I would want to hear it repeated over and over again. This again could be my error; possibly repeated performances of Surrender Road could prove to me infectious. But after one viewing, I can safely say I do not want to hear many of these songs again.
One song does stand out in emotive power and lyrical beauty. I was lucky enough to see an opera preview a few months ago that had the cast of Faust performing different opera arias. A cast member sang ‘The Falling Girl’ from Surrender Road, and it was lovely and excited me about the entire production. Sung by the artist Emily who likes to depict members of the circus in her paintings, the song tells the story of the tightrope walking girl of the circus who gets paid to fall each night because that’s what the audience wants to see. The song deftly shows the outcast / downtrodden connection between Manuel and Emily, and the sad melody is very moving and memorable. Surrounded by less enjoyable songs, this song stands out as a complete work.
At the end, Manuel discovers the truth behind his trainer’s involvement in the thrown matches, and I think both characters kill themselves at the end. It’s not terribly clear. What is clear is the maudlin tone that ended a piece that gave every notion of hope and possibility. The audience is led to believe that these two outcast losers will find salvation in each other, and maybe they do. Who knows? The last lines sung by Willie are from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream, and they seem to be given as an easy out, an apology to anyone that did not take from this work what was intended: ‘If we shadows have offended, this but this—and all is mended—that you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear.’ I can’t say I fell completely asleep while observing the mismatched drama of Surrender Road, but sad to say it was not far from a bad dream.