‘I Want to Live’ examines the death penalty through music
February 21, 2012
When independent singer, songwriter and actress Nellie McKay saw the 1958 film "I Want to Live," about Barbara Graham, the third woman to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison, she felt it would translate well onto the live stage.
"It was an incredibly compelling movie to me and, although it was about something that happened in 1955, the story and its issues are still relevant today," McKay said during a phone call to The Park Record from the Indianapolis Airport. "When you read the description of the movie, it’s about a ‘ woman of ill repute that hangs around seedy bars ‘ and although she was convicted of murder, there was no physical evidence to prove it. All the evidence was circumstantial."
The Park City Performing Arts Foundation will present Nellie McKay in "I Want to Live" at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m.
After seeing actress Susan Hayward’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Graham in the film, McKay’s mind began working on the logistics of breaking down the story into a live show.
Since McKay is a musician, she felt the performance should feature live music.
"I felt the music in the film was great anyhow," she said. "While a lot of things made the movie, I thought the music made the film and I wanted to set the tone of the performance with a band."
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As Hayward did more than 50 years ago, McKay wanted Graham to live and breathe again, and to do that, she spent months researching and studying Graham’s life.
"I’ve been working on putting this together for a few years, and read anything I could get my hands on," McKay said about the production that premiered last summer in New York City.
Graham was convicted of murdering Mabel Monohan, a 64-year-old widow, during a failed robbery, and until her execution, proclaimed her innocence.
During the research, McKay found similarities between herself and Graham
"I think she had a lazy streak in her, which was something I related to, but she also had a smart mouth and problems with authority," McKay said. "I also liked that, during her trial, she didn’t display the anxiety that others would have shown in her situation. In every photograph I had seen or statement she wrote, there was a calm, collectiveness about her."
"I Want to Live" also reflects McKay’s anti-death penalty philosophy, but she wanted to present it to audiences in a palatable way.
"We needed to keep the political nuances and dark elements in, but gave them a light-hearted touch, because if you can just get people to think about an issue, that’s an accomplishment in itself," McKay said. "In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded with ideas and messages, and some people just close their minds off. So, if this performance gets one person to think about society and the death penalty, then that’s wonderful, because when someone thinks long and deep about something, they will eventually take action."
The production also helped McKay see the world through Graham’s eyes.
"Telling a person’s story with humor and music is probably one of the best ways to be political," she said. "I feel like it’s not my butt on stage, but hers and I try to honor her and that puts pressure on me in a good way to try to do her justice. The show is about her and everything that represents even those people who are on the fringes of society who are neglected and don’t fit in."
At an early age, McKay found the power of music and acting.
"I found it was a great way to get attention," she said. "With this show, we tried to keep things thought-provoking, and true to her spirit."
The Park City Performing Arts Foundation will present Nellie McKay in "I Want to Live" at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets area $18 to $65 and available by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.