“America’s Artist: The Norman Rockwell Story”

“America’s Artist: The Norman Rockwell Story” introduces audiences to the man outside the frame

Janet Speer was ready to debut her newest biographical musical during the 2020 Lees-McRae Summer Theatre season, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to postpone.  

Now, a year later, “America’s Artist: The Norman Rockwell Story,” has finally taken the stage. In some ways, the musical’s unconventional journey aligns with the theme Speer and her collaborators, musicians Jt Oaks and Tommy Oaks, wanted to investigate with the audience: real life is not what you see in the frame. 

“We chose Norman Rockwell as the subject of our next musical because his story is so compelling,” Speer said. “His pictures told one story, and his life told another.”  

Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City. By the time of his death in 1978, his prolific portfolio of high-profile portraits, scenes of idealized American life, and paintings commenting on social issues firmly cemented him as one of America’s most iconic painters. Rockwell is probably best known for his “Saturday Evening Post” covers, his “Four Freedoms” series, and “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts a young Ruby Bridges 

For much of his life, Rockwell focused on creating aspirational or sentimental art that didn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the time. The families in his paintings and illustrations seemed untouched by the Great Depression, World War II, or the Cold War, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that his work indicated a growing interest in the issues of the day. His personal life was less than idyllic as well. 

“This musical deals with some real internal issues,” Speer said. “There’s a lot of internal stuff going on with him and his family, and that’s set against his beautiful paintings that were lifting everybody’s spirits.” 

Rockwell is being portrayed by Ben Lamoureux, an actor from Orlando, Florida who got to know Speer while interning with Lees-McRae Summer Theatre as a high school student. Although this isn’t the first time he’s performed in Banner Elk, it is the first time he’s taken a role as a real-life individual.  

“I feel a little more pressure to get it right,” he said. “At the same time, this is musical theatre, so we have a little bit artistic liberty. But we’re trying to tell his story, and that entails portraying him correctly. And getting the New York accent correct!”  

Speer and Lamoureux both did extensive research to prepare for the show, including watching documentaries about the artist, studying his work, and finding television interviews from later in his life. Speer was also able to speak with the artist’s granddaughter, Abigail Rockwell. Lamoureux, as an artist himself, pulled from his own experiences to add depth to the role.  

“I hope that seeing such a great artist, such a famous artist of renown, struggle with the same things that all creatives do—wondering if you’re good enough, having critics make comments that feel more personal than professional—opens people’s eyes to perhaps have some more compassion,” Lamoureux said. “No matter who you are, everyone has something they’re struggling with.”  

The musical follows Rockwell throughout his life and features a sizeable cast, with many actors playing multiple roles. Two of those actors are members of the Lees-McRae Theatre Arts program: Joshua Yoder, the program director, and Musical Theatre major Jobeth Hilton.  

Theatre Arts students are encouraged to work in the industry as much as they can in the summer months to supplement the experience they receive in class and through participating in college productions. For Hilton, this first foray into professional theatre has been challenging, but enlightening.  

“This production has really shown me what to expect from other professional companies as far as rehearsal schedules, music direction, and overall performance value goes. It’s also been a learning curve trying to manage work, social, and mental balance,” said Hilton, who has a minor role as a “smart-mouthed, sassy secretary with a bouncy walk and quirky voice” in addition to being part of the ensemble. “I actually have the honor of being in this musical with one of my professors, Josh Yoder, so it has been really awesome to use some skills he’s taught me over the past two years.” 

Across the theater, another Lees-McRae student is helping the production run as a member of the crew. Abby Paulson, a Theatre Arts major and Technical Theatre minor, has worked on the lighting for both Lees-McRae Summer Theatre shows this year.  

“My favorite part of doing these past two shows for this season at Lees-McRae Summer Theatre has been the people,” she said. “Yes, it's amazing to get the opportunity to expand my interests in theatre with learning all aspects of how lighting works in a theater, but the people truly sell the show. Working with individuals who are just as passionate about the arts as you is something you can't beat.” 

The whole cast and crew hope the audience can recognize that passion during the show. Speer would like the audience to leave understanding more about the multifaceted character of a quintessential American cultural figure and thinking about what it means to strive for the life shown “in the frame.” 

“Rockwell wanted his family to be what he put in the frame,” Speer said. “He never stopped reaching for that, and I think that’s something we should all do. I really mourn the loss of the old movies that gave us this lofty goal to work towards. Now we have to see movies with life as it is, and what do we reach for? What are we looking for? In this show, we’re presenting both. We’re saying ‘yeah we know life can be really tough and really hard, but let’s shoot for something else. Let’s shoot for something loftier.’” 

“America’s Artist: The Norman Rockwell Story” is currently playing in the Hayes Auditorium at Lees-McRae. The show will run through Aug. 1, with evening performances on July 28, 30, and 31 at 7 p.m., and matinee performances on July 29, 30, 31, and Aug. 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18–$20 for children and students and $38–$43 for adults. Visit lmc.edu/summertheatre to purchase tickets. 

By Emily WebbJuly 28, 2021