The Ballad of Little Jo

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

The annals of American history and legend are dotted with accounts of women who posed as men in the sexually restrictive 19th and early 20th centuries. One disguised herself to become a soldier and follow the man she loved into battle. Another, whom today we would recognize as lesbian or transgendered, had a long and fulfilling marriage by hiding her real sex even from her wife.

Then there was “Little Jo” Monaghan, an east-coast debutant who took literally Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” According to a 1904 newspaper article, Monaghan gave birth to an illegitimate child as a teenager and left home in disgrace. Adopting a male facade to keep from being molested as she ventured into the rugged frontier, she moved to Ruby City (later Silver City), Idaho, in 1867; there she forged a new life as a miner, rancher, and broncobuster. “His pronounced feminine appearance, the boy’s voice, his delicate build, the ascetic life he lived, all tended to bring his life under discussion,” the article claims. “But never did anyone give utterance to the belief that he was anything other than the man he represented himself to be.” Indeed, Monaghan gained a reputation as a well-liked but reclusive fellow whose only companion was a “Chinaman” who worked on her ranch. Monaghan’s real gender wasn’t revealed until after she died in 1903 at the age of 53.

Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger’s musical The Ballad of Little Jo, receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf under Tina Landau’s direction, is very loosely based on this offbeat story. The show makes no pretense to historical accuracy; newspaper reports from that era were hardly reliable in any case, so Reid and Schlesinger rightly felt no compunction to hew to the “facts.” Nor did they seek to duplicate the story as retold in Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 movie of the same name, which they call a “departure point” for their version. Reid and Schlesinger wanted to create a folktale in which the west–where an outcast can “make my life my own” and “find a place where I belong,” as the chorus sings in the show’s pageantlike opening–would serve as a metaphor for Jo’s self-discovery through hardship.

And what hardship. Impregnated by a married man and subsequently banished by her Boston Brahmin father, who makes her relinquish her infant to the care of her married sister, Jo takes a train to San Francisco; robbed of her ticket and money en route, she’s thrown off the train into a wilderness populated almost entirely by men, two of whom promptly rape her. (In one of the most heavy-handed ironies I’ve seen on a stage, the rapists creep up on Jo while she’s sitting by a campfire singing “I see heaven waiting for me.”) After shooting one of the bastards in the back, she slashes her face, chops off her hair, and sheds her skirt for trousers and a breast-covering vest–not only for self-protection but as a psychological reaction against her own sexuality, which has brought her nothing but trouble.

Making her way to a mining camp, Jo is initially dissed as a “dude” by the other miners, manly men who spend their time doing manly things like drinking, brawling, and challenging one another to pissing contests. But then kindly Sarah Stewart, the lone voice of sanity and sensitivity, expresses her friendship and convinces the others to let Jo stay. Though Sarah is, of course, in love with Jo, the only gentle “man” she’s ever seen out west, she ends up marrying Jordan Ellis, a burly young miner who takes Jo under his wing at Sarah’s prodding. Jo is attracted to Jordan–she sings of watching his muscles ripple when he teaches her how to wield a pickax–but Reid and Schlesinger fail to develop this classic love-triangle setup. Instead Jo becomes Jordan’s partner in the general store he opens.

After many years, Jo’s secret is exposed when her son writes Jordan inquiring after his mother, who Jordan realizes is Jo. At the same time Sarah–whose innate rebelliousness is berated by the other women in a song proclaiming that a woman’s role is to support her man–finally reveals to Jordan that their marriage is less than satisfying because she’s in love with Jo. (This seems perfectly evident to any intelligent observer, but maybe the husband really is always the last to know.) Making the situation even more dangerous, Sarah and Jo have given protection to Tin Man Wong, a Chinese orphan who becomes the white miners’ scapegoat for their failing fortunes. When Tin Man goes to live with Jo, it turns out–surprise–he knew all along she was a woman (that inscrutable oriental wisdom). He teaches her to “listen to the rain,” convinces her to “never doubt that you are worthy of love,” and takes her to bed. (Why not? He’s by far the best-looking guy in town.)

All these plot strands finally come together when Jordan, enraged at Jo, reveals her secret to the already testy townsfolk. They in turn descend upon Jo’s ranch to destroy it–and Jo herself, who stands her ground but never fights back. (By contrast, the Jo Monaghan described in the 1904 newspaper article was a quick-draw shootist who, one imagines, would at least have taken a few of her foes with her to the grave.)

If this summary makes Little Jo sound downbeat and preachy, it is. In this show, unhappiness is just a thing called Jo. Enduring one penny dreadful crisis after another, she ends up a victim rather than a feminist hero. Her violent end is a defeat, though Reid and Schlesinger try to spin an uplifting moral about making the world better for the next generation, represented by Jo’s son. The effort is futile; the authors, preoccupied with their theme, have failed to create credible characters or a story that feels real. The plot is certainly drawn from truth–obviously women did face great dangers in the uncivilized west, and Chinese immigrants were indeed blamed for working cheap and taking jobs away from whites. But the two-dimensional stick figures populating the script make it feel like a hodgepodge of snippets from Twelfth Night, Victor/Victoria, Paint Your Wagon, Gone With the Wind, The Rainmaker (and its musical version, 110 in the Shade), and a host of B westerns in which all the men are brawny brawlers and all the women are uptight scolds, kindly but flinty shopkeepers, or bawdy whores.

Little Jo raised high hopes: not only is it Steppenwolf’s first effort at a fully integrated book musical, it’s also director Landau’s first musical in Chicago since the brilliant Floyd Collins at the Goodman last year. That show was also based on a minor but intriguing historical event, the 1925 case of a Kentucky spelunker trapped in a cave. But Floyd Collins–which Landau scripted as well as directed– was unfailingly original, consistently avoiding cliche and sentimentality, and it showcased a young composer of genius, Adam Guettel. Like him, Reid seeks to fuse folk idioms and art-song structures, looking to the likes of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson for inspiration. But though he’s a competent tunesmith who’s won Grammies for his pop and country songs, and though his rhythmically propulsive music is initially refreshing, these numbers end up sounding monotonous. A novice at writing outside the commercial marketplace, Reid is clearly out of his element. He might have done better if he’d stuck to a more commercial pop-country format, as Roger Miller did in his marvelous score for Big River, his adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Certainly no song in Little Jo comes close to the melodic memorability or emotional nuance of Reid’s best-known tune, the Bonnie Raitt hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” And Schlesinger’s solid, serviceable lyrics are sometimes cliched and nearly always preachy rather than suggestive; the result can recall an animated Disney musical for grown-ups.

Though the material is flawed, the production is superb. As in Floyd Collins and other shows she’s done here, Landau reveals an outstanding feel for visual imagery. She places her actors artfully throughout G.W. Mercier’s set, a rocky landscape gradually transformed into a town by boardwalks and red, white, and blue bunting. Scott Zielinski’s lighting creates vistas of star-studded blue and threatening red, and Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s costumes are period perfect.

Landau has also assembled a first-rate cast headed by three Broadway pros–Judy Kuhn, Jessica Boevers, and Jose Llana–and one local stalwart, David New. Kuhn’s supple voice and straightforward poise make Little Jo as multidimensional as the script will allow. Llana brings quiet power to the too small role of Tin Man; Boevers keeps Sarah from becoming strident; and as Jordan, New boasts a commanding masculine presence as well as a leading man’s voice. The supporting cast is packed with able local talents–Paula Scrofano as Jo’s loving sister, John Reeger as Jo’s hateful father, and Andrew Rothenberg, Paul Slade Smith, Iris Lieberman, Ron Rains, and Steppenwolf member Rondi Reed in various roles.

Reid and Schlesinger’s choice of theme is admirable, as is their uncompromising seriousness of purpose. But The Ballad of Little Jo too often comes across as a gender-reversing rehash of Wild West cliches rather than a work with something new to say about American history or something new to offer musical theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.