Retired Air Force officer pursues dream of bringing Virginia history to the stage
by Rob Lauer
Growing up in the heart of Idaho farm country, Larry Sidwell was raised with quintessential American values: love of country, an abiding faith, devotion to family, and a commitment to
Those values were reflected in his schooling. His academic performance earned him an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy. His interest in diplomacy led him to study international relations at Georgetown University and earn a Master's Degree in public administration from the University of Northern Colorado. A 25-year career as an officer in the U.S. Airforce came next, followed by a second career as a pilot for American Airlines.
Through the years, Larry never lost his love for American history - a love born from his family's pioneer heritage. Upon retiring, that love played a decisive role in where Larry and his wife, Leslie, chose to settle: Charlottesville, Virginia.
While training as a guide, he becamefamiliar with the words engraved on Jefferson's tombstone: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."
the ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂFirst Freedom.'
Virginia was the first government ever to declare that it had no right to tell people what to think, believe or worship. This was very different from mere religious toleration, where a government gives people permission to believe whatever they want.
This was a government affirming that individuals had a natural right to choose what they will think and believe and that no government could usurp that right."
"I realized that Jefferson's statute
was one of the greatest contributions
ever made to freedom of the human mind."
- Larry Sidwell
Convinced that more people needed to know about the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Larry contemplated what he could do. "Writing a book didn't seem like much of an option," he recalls. Then he hit upon an idea: why not bring the story of Jefferson and the statute to life in a show that could be produced annually somewhere in Virginia. Outdoor dramas, such as The Lost Colony in Manteo, seemed like one option.
Though Larry had no theatrical experience whatsoever, he connected with the artistic director of a well-known outdoor drama in upstate New York, asking for advice. He was told that the first step was to hire a playwright to craft a script. "This director suggested that we contact Rob Lauer, an award-winning New York City-based playwright, theatrical director, and historian who also happened to be a native of Virginia," Larry explains. "We interviewed Rob and did not go any further. Rob was exactly what we wanted."
From his first discussion with Larry, Rob Lauer was interested in the job. "Growing up visiting historical sites here in Hampton Roads, I was familiar with the Colonial period," he says. "I'm also a philosophy nerd and love studying the ideas of the Enlightenment - ideas that influenced the Founding Fathers. When Larry approached me about writing the show, it seemed like the perfect project for me - like a dream come true. In fact, I tried to control my excitement in case I didn't get the job. "But I was also very cautious," Rob continues. "Given the current social climate, I knew that a show dealing with the history of religious freedom could easily manipulate facts to push a particular religious or political agenda - something I wanted nothing to do with. So, despite my enthusiasm, I made it clear that the show would have to stick to the facts and present the philosophies of the Founding Fathers - the actual ideas that were in the air over 200 years ago, ideas that don't perfectly align with either side of current political debates. In the end, Larry agreed that this was his intent as well. I was hired, and it has been a dream project for me." Rob delved into three years of research into the life of Thomas Jefferson and the ten-year political battle that led to his statute becoming law.
Through his connections with Monticello, Southern Virginia University and University of Virginia, Larry introduced Rob to some of the world's top Jefferson historians and biographers. But within a matter of weeks, Rob learned something that completely changed the focus of the script he would write. "I started out thinking Thomas Jefferson would be the star of the show," Rob reveals. "After all, he wrote the statute and considered it one of his three greatest accomplishments. I soon discovered that Jefferson lived in Paris as a U.S. diplomat while politicians were debating his statute. It turns out that it was James Madison - a political newcomer, years younger than Jefferson - who maneuvered, fought, argued, wrote, campaigned, and eventually saw that the statute became law. Overnight the show changed from one about Thomas Jefferson to one about James Madison - probably our least known and understood Founding Father. In fact, referring to him as a Founding Father is odd because he was a generation younger than most of the other Founders." Madison seemed an unlikely hero for a show. He was short, boyish-looking, and physically unimposing. Uncomfortable when speaking in public, he had such a soft voice that, throughout his life, people constantly told him to speak up. But of all of America's Founders, Madison was arguably the most brilliant and was later christened by historians as "The Father of the U.S. Constitution."
This short, soft-spoken boy entered politics in 1776 after seeing Baptist ministers arrested for preaching on the streets. Though not deeply religious himself, Madison passionately believed that people were inherently free to believe or not believe what they chose without government interference. This was one of the most revolutionary ideas of the 18th century - and Madison, a stickler for philosophical details, was at its forefront.
This being the case, Larry and Rob were confronted with a challenge. How to make a show about ideas entertaining? Everything changed yet again. Rob suggested scrapping the idea of an outdoor drama and write the show as a musical. "Music conveys big emotions and big ideas in ways that mere words cannot," Rob explains. "In musicals, characters talk to one another until the action becomes so intense that simply speaking doesn't work anymore. They have to sing. In life, of course, people don't break into song, but audiences will accept it when characters on stage sing - and once the music starts, it can express feelings and concepts in ways that go straight to the heart." Deciding that the show - now entitled First Freedom - would be a musical, Larry went about hiring a composer.
A national search led him to Emmy Award-winner Sam Cardon - whose credits include the Good Morning, America and ABC Sports theme songs, countless motion picture scores, music for the 2002 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, critically acclaimed jazz compositions, and arrangements for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Sam's initial reaction was tepid at best. "I was probably like a lot of people when hearing for the first time about a new historical play," Sam recalls. "We've all seen really terrible ones, so my enthusiasm wasn't sky-high. It seemed like it had the potential for being another snooze fest. I've seen many like that and didn't have a great deal of enthusiasm about being involved - until I read Rob Lauer's script. The script was such a literary, clever, brilliant piece of work that it became obvious very quickly that it was something I needed to be involved in." Sam was captivated by First Freedom's unlikely hero. "The story of James Madison is the classic story of an underdog who rises victoriously above all of his challenges," Sam smiles. "We all love seeing the underdog win, and in First Freedom, he certainly does."
"The script was such a literary, clever,
brilliant piece of work that it became
obvious very quickly that it was
something I needed to be involved in."
- Sam Cardon, Emmy Award-winning composer
"First Freedom also shows how some of the most intense battles the Founding Fathers fought were not with the British but with each other," Rob notes. "The idea that the best way to protect religious freedom was to have a completely secular government was so radical at the time that many Founders fought against it. When Madison entered politics, one of his mentors was Patrick Henry - who famously said, "Give me liberty or give me death!' But Henry believed all citizens should be taxed to support the churches, so he and Madison became political enemies. That's a huge part of the show's story."
When the script and score were completed, Larry next had to find a way to have the show "workshopped" - the long process of working out the bugs in a script by producing it for audiences and making changes as needed. Larry approached director Jamie Young, then head of the Musical Theatre Department of Western Wyoming College, about the possibility of the college mounting a production.
Jamie's initial reaction was similar to Sam's. "I thought, ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂOh great: another history play," he recalls. "But when I got hold of Rob's script, I saw how well-written it was - saw its depth of thought and the power of its message. I quickly changed my mind about the supposed drudgery of doing a ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂhistory show.' The college mounted a full production, and we were thrilled with the responses from the actors and audiences alike. We knew we were really onto something."
Over the next few years, Jamie produced three more productions of the show throughout the Rocky Mountain West, each followed by rewrites and improvements.
During that same time, Hamilton opened on Broadway and took the world by storm, proving what Larry Sidwell, Rom Lauer and Sam Cardon knew: the story of America's Founding Fathers is the stuff of great entertainment. "The audience response to workshop productions of First Freedom was a testament to that fact," Sam Cardon says. "Audiences have enjoyed themselves and shared their enthusiasm for the show and are as excited as we are about having it launched in a bigger venue."
After Dr. Craig Wansink, head of Virginia Wesleyan University's Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, read First Freedom, he became enthusiastic about a possible production in Hampton Roads - inviting Rob Lauer to deliver Wesleyan's 2019 Cookson Religious Freedom Lecture. "Emily Dickinson's famous poem emphasizes, 'ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂTell all the truth but tell it slant - Success in Circuit lies,'" Dr. Wansink explains. "Sometimes the most effective way to address important differences is ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂat a slant."
That's what First Freedom does. During a time when direct communication can be ineffective, this musical looks to the past in ways that don't threaten us today but absolutely inform how we understand our differences. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson can seem pretty abstract, but First Freedom makes them very alive, and shows well how they recognized the challenges of diversity and the necessity of embracing it and negotiating it."
As the man who first envisioned "First Freedom," Larry Sidwell appreciates such praise for the show. Now he is determined to find the financial backing necessary to finally bring the show home to Virginia. With Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown in its backyard, Larry and Rob are convinced that Hampton Roads is the ideal location for the production. "The purpose of First Freedom is not only to entertain - which the show absolutely does in a big way,"
Larry says with pride. "It is also to make people aware of the incredible gift of religious freedoms that the Founders left us, and to instill in them a desire to preserve that gift."
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