Author Jill McCorkle knows all about good ol’ girls – the ones in her life and the ones who populate her short stories and novels. These feisty Southern women, who know that “big hair and a big heart do not mean a small mind” have taken the creative writing professor into the realms of musical theatre and songwriting over the last decade.
A new chapter begins this week as she follows her characters to New York City for an Off Broadway premiere of “Good Ol’ Girls,” based on the writings of McCorkle and Lee Smith, a longtime friend, collaborator and predecessor at NC State. “I’m not sure what we’ll see when the curtain rises – maybe a lot of surprises,” McCorkle says. “But that’s what happens when your characters come to life and start walking around.”
These good ol’ girls also sing, sharing comic and tragic experiences across the arc of a lifespan in what the New York Times called a “feminist literary country music revue.” There’s a book-loving girl caught up in religious fervor, a spouse who has fled her marriage and abandoned her clothes in a public movie theatre, and a woman facing a move to a nursing home.
The musical takes its name and inspiration from the song “Good Ol’ Girls” by Matraca Berg, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee with recordings by Randy Travis, Faith Hill, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, Clint Black, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks. Berg reached out to renowned songwriter Marshall Chapman, who was familiar with Smith’s novels. And Smith brought in McCorkle.
The authors had known each other for 30 years, since Smith taught her first creative writing class in Chapel Hill and McCorkle was an undergraduate.
“That was the first time it occurred to me that reasonably well-respected, responsible people could build a life around writing, that I could do something I loved,” McCorkle says.
She has since published four story collections and five novels, five of which have been selected as New York Times Notable Books.
When “Good Ol’ Girls” began to take shape, McCorkle was living near Boston, her home for almost 20 years. She held a series of jobs as a visiting professor, continuing to write and teach.
“It’s a constant juggling act,” she says. “In academic life, you have busy, stressful times and wonderful holiday breaks and summers. I’m the kind of person who stores up a lot of material – I take endless notes – waiting for a big block of time. Then I hunker down and type.”
To move their characters from the printed page to the stage, Smith and McCorkle relied on Paul Ferguson, a theatre professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, to select the stories and music.
“We all sent him a pile of work – mine was monologues from my novels and short stories – and he put it all together,” McCorkle says. Ferguson directed the first run at the North Carolina Literary Festival in Chapel Hill in 2000.
McCorkle enjoyed the trips back to work on the musical. During an early reading, she and Smith helped with dialect coaching. “An actor from New York had been hired to do the part, and we had to teach her how to say ‘rurnt’ for a line in the play where her character says, ‘When you’ve been rurnt like I am, it frees you up some,’” McCorkle recalls with a laugh.
In 2003, the North Carolina Theatre produced a southeastern U.S. tour of “Good Ol’ Girls” that opened with four performances at NC State. Though the productions were well-received, interest in the musical faded after the regional run.
Meanwhile, McCorkle, a North Carolina native, decided she was ready to relocate. The opening she found? A creative writing position at NC State, previously held by Smith, that offered an appealing blend of teaching and writing.
“It felt scripted,” she says. McCorkle settled in to her new position, teaching a graduate workshop focused on short stories for the M.F.A. program, as well as an undergraduate workshop. “I like what I do because I get to work with some fine young writers and I have wonderful colleagues in the department.”
Two years ago, “Good Ol’ Girls” got another turn in the spotlight when Bo Thorpe of Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville staged a version of the show. The day after its three-week live run ended, Minnow Media, a group specializing in documentaries, filmed the production for public television.
“Good Ol’ Girls” premiered on UNC-TV in April 2009, with an encore in November. And a cast member from New York brought it to the attention of a friend, which led to this week’s opening at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Mirium Steinberg Center for Theatre on 46th Street, in the heart of the theatre district. At the premiere, Ferguson, the original director, plans to join the four women whose stories and music inspired it all.
There’s just no telling where these “Good Ol’ Girls” will turn up next.