Michael Miles has done this before, staged musical variety shows that chronicle the sounds and history of one particular year. But not like this year.
"1941 was the first one, with everything leading up to Pearl Harbor. Then I did 1968, which had the assassinations and Vietnam and the election of Nixon," he says. "1957 doesn't seem to have the same drama. But then, everything that happened in the '60s was being baked in 1957."
"America 1957" is a stage show featuring musicians, actors and video showcasing the news and culture from that fateful year -- which also happens to be the year Chicago's Old Town School of Music was founded.
• 5 and 8 p.m. today
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
Miles is a banjo player, and his own history is intertwined with that of the school's. He began teaching there in 1979, and served as the school's program director from 1984 to 1998. He wrote "America 1957" this year, which he spent as the school's first artist-in-residence.
"As part of that -- can you believe the school's never had an artist-in-residence before? -- I had the opportunity to create something," Miles said. "I call these 'musical documentaries for the stage.' ... I don't call it theater. It's not blocked like a play, we're not really acting. I'm not stopping Robbie Fulks to say, 'You know, I'm really not feeling Elvis Presley here.' We're reading and singing and spotlighting."
He thumbs through the "America 1957" script and begins reeling off a few of the events and milestones from that year -- the Little Rock Nine, Strom Thurmond's 24-hour filibuster, William F. Buckley Jr. claiming whites are "the advanced race" ("He recanted that years later, but in '57 he said it loud and proud," Miles says), Sputnik and more. Pop culture that year included Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, On the Road, The Cat in the Hat, "Leave It to Beaver," some TV commercials that are pretty amusing in hindsight.
The date is loosely applied. The McCarthyism of previous years is discussed, since the senator died that year. Beatniks were in full swing, which Miles illustrates by way of a 1959 comedy record from Del Close and John Brent, "How to Speak Hip," which some of the actors recite onstage. One of Miles' favorite finds is a 1953 article, used to showcase something the Beats were doing in '57.
"God bless the Internet. In going through Norman Mailer's The White Negro [published in 1957], in the back he included letters he'd received critical of his outspoken hipsterism. One of them says, 'You're a complete idiot, especially when it comes to smoking marijuana,' and it cites a study by Dr. Howard Becker. So I Google it, and there it is: an article [in the American Journal of Sociology, published by the University of Chicago Press], 'Becoming a Marihuana User.' We put some of that onstage. It's just funny."
The national view eventually focuses on Chicago, from Nelson Algren to the night of Dec. 1, 1957, when the Old Town School of Folk Music was founded. Ted Johnson was there that night, and he helps conclude "America 1957" with his reminiscences.
"That night, as Michael writes in the show, the folk genie came out of the bottle," Johnson said. "Things had been stirring in folk music and heating up in politics. In retrospect, his having picked this year makes perfect sense. There was a lot of ferment and change. ... The school came out of that, this sort of rising interest in folk music. By 1957, the folk revival was beginning to happen in New York and Chicago. The school built on that. It was an idea whose time had come."