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"Sangamon Songs" Returns To The Stage

Springfield singer-songwriter Tom Irwin and playwright John Arden are bringing their production about the life and times of a Sangamon County teenager back for another run.

“Sangamon Songs” tells the story of 16 year old Harry Glen Ludlam, who wrote a diary in 1893 about life on his farm: the same farm owned by Irwin’s family today.

I sat down with the duo, who brought the musical play to life for the first time back in August, to chat about what audiences can expect this time from the show that’s been more than a century in the making.

SD: So the last time we talked, you were getting ready to set up for this show over in Petersburg, if I remember correctly. How did that show go? And what were the challenges of putting it on?

TI: “One of the reasons we went there because it was a small little theater that really hadn't been used that much, and the deal we could make with a guy was like, whoever shows up shows up and we just split whatever was there. So we expected maybe 20 or 30 people.”

“I don't know what we expected, but what we got was sold out shows both times and people coming that expected to get tickets that couldn't, so that was a little over 100 at each show! That went really well. It really did, so that's kind of why we decided to do another one.”

JA: “This theater had been set up, I think, to show movies and other things. So when we first got there, Tom was up on the stage and when they pulled down the screen, our projections were showing on Tom!”

“We couldn't work it that way, so we eventually decided to put Tom on the floor, and it was a small enough theater that Tom could be on the floor and you could see him and hear him and everything. So we had the big projections up on the stage and we didn't use the stage that much really. We were down on the floor.”

SD: What did folks say? After they saw this whole production, having the Harry Glenn Ludlam character on stage and Tom performing the songs, what did folks have to say about seeing that all together?

TI: “Well, I think, emotionally I have more of a feeling of what happened during the show than even after. But being up there on stage, I mean, they were literal gasps sometimes. You could hear...people laughing and some people have talked about being brought to tears by some of the emotional parts of it.”

JA: “Yeah, I would say I was surprised at how the Saturday night audience was so emotionally into it. In the [epilogue], where Tom talks about what happened to Harry eventually the rest of his life, there's one point where we put up the only photo that we have of him, which is I think [when] he's 60 years old. I think people really reacted to that.”

“Phil Funkenbusch, a local director who was there that night, said by the time the audience has made the journey with Harry, they've invested so much in him that when they see what happened to them, they do have an emotional response. That surprised me, because I didn't know if the story had that in it.”

SD: Let's move to the performance that's up and coming. What can folks expect if they come up?

JA: They can look forward to hearing these great songs and hearing Tom perform them with the Harry character, who is performed by his son, John Gifford Irwin, who really was a revelation. I think a lot of people walked out of the show saying, ‘Boy, that young guy is really good!’ He is really good, and he has a lot of experience on stage and he really sold it.”

TI: “Now John was about five years old when he walked up and put his chest out and started singing in public, so he's just a natural for the stage. Plus, we'll also have course Theresa O’Hare again on flute and Irish whistle, and JD Wilson playing some banjo and guitjo and guitars for us, which adds a little extra dimension to the songs.”

SD: What are you both excited about as the show is coming up?

TI: “Well, the chance to do it again, for one thing! An analogy I used earlier is it's like the second child: the first one is, you know, we're all gung-ho [for it] but everything's different for this second one. To me, to see it continue is the most exciting thing.”

JA: “Yeah, I agree. It was great to do it in Petersburg and it was very homemade and all the events of the play actually happened nearby, so it felt like it was the right place to go the first time. Now, I think, we're kind of stepping up. We can do a lot more technically with this venue, and then also having it in Springfield opens it up to more people and fans of Tom’s who live around here.”

Sangamon Songs runs this weekend at the UIS Studio Theater. Saturday, Nov. 9th at 7 PM; Sunday, November 10th at 3:00 PM.

Tickets can be found at UISpac.com or by calling 217-206-6160

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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