If the stars align and everything goes well, a distinctly West Virginia story could find its way to the bright lights of Broadway.
That’s what the producers of a musical based on Denise Giardina’s novel, “Storming Heaven,” hope.
Producers/playwrights Peter Davenport and Katy Blake believe in Giardina’s book — set during the mine wars in the early part of the 20th century — and say it’s a uniquely American story. They think audiences might be ready for something that isn’t based on a television show or a movie.
“There’s a place for all of that,” Blake said.
But “Storming Heaven,” which opens Thursday night at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre at West Virginia University in Morgantown, is meatier. At a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots only seems to be growing, the ideas of the story might shine through.
It’s taken seven years for the musical to get this far.
Up until six years ago, Davenport, an actor, writer and director, had never even heard of “Storming Heaven” — until Blake called him.
The Nashville-based actress and songwriter, a veteran of several national theater tours, said she wanted to write a musical of her own and had been looking for a story to tell when she came across the book.
“I grew up in Southwest Virginia,” Blake said. “I went to Virginia Tech, and West Virginia was a place I got to know. It was the place where I learned how to ski. I went to the Greenbrier.”
While studying theater at Virginia Tech, she performed in front of a group of coal miners and became interested in the culture and history of the coalfields.
“I sort of followed the struggles and understood that sense of place they had,” she said. “They were sort of taken advantage of.”
When Blake began looking for that story to turn into a musical, she thought back to Appalachia and the coal fields, which was when she came across “Storming Heaven.”
Blake said, “Here’s something I can put into a musical very easily.”
Only, she struggled to make it work on her own, so she reached out to Davenport.
“I had just taken a short film I’d written and directed to the Cannes Film Festival in 2013,” he said. “We’d done an off-Broadway show together and we knew we were good collaborators.”
Blake told him, “Here. Read this and tell me what you think.”
Davenport agreed. He thought Giardina’s novel had a quality that lent itself to a musical.
This is not the first time someone has thought about adapting Giardina’s novel from the printed page.
Years ago, but after the sprawling story won the W.D. Weatherford Award, the cable network TNT bought the rights for a television movie. The television film production got as far as a script, which the 67-year-old Mercer County native read.
“It was just terrible,” Giardina said with a pained sigh. “Just really bad.”
The network had dumbed down the story and made the characters more like stereotypical hillbillies. Giardina hated it. The screenwriters and producers, she thought, had failed to grasp what her book was about.
“I worried that they were going to do it,” she said.
But they didn’t, and eventually the rights went back to Giardina, which she thought was probably for the best, though having a book made into a television film might have been good for her career.
Giardina has had a respectable career. Since her first book in 1984, “Good King Harry,” the Charleston resident and retired West Virginia State University professor has published six novels, several of them acclaimed, including “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth.”
Her last book, “Emily’s Ghost,” was published in 2009, but Giardina said there hasn’t been a lot of interest in her work, lately.
“My books have fallen off the radar,” she said.
After Davenport and Blake agreed to collaborate on writing the musical, they contacted Giardina and flew to Charleston. They took the author out to dinner and described their vision.
A story as broad as “Storming Heaven” would need to be focused. A 300-page novel with a couple of dozen characters was just too big for one show, so they told Giardina they planned to build their musical around the story of one character, Carrie Bishop Freeman, a nurse, who served as one of the main narrators in the book.
Giardina said she was a little wary at first because the pair mentioned the story having a kind of happy ending.
“‘Storming Heaven’ doesn’t have a happy ending,” she said. “But the more we talked about it, they explained it wasn’t really happy — more like stirring.”
She gave them her blessing and permission to attempt the musical.
Adapting and condensing a 300-page novel set over two decades didn’t happen overnight — and Blake and Davenport have active careers besides the show.
Blake works in theater while Davenport has his own production company and frequently appears in small roles for film and television on shows like “Jessica Jones,” “The Black List” and “The Good Wife.”
Between the two of them, there have been many drafts and rewrites of the script over the past six years. Through her connections in Nashville, Blake brought in country star Tracy Lawrence to help with some of the music.
“I met him through a mentor,” she said. “I still write country music.”
Blake said she, Lawrence and Flip Anderson sat down one afternoon to work on music, just to see if they could work together.
“Forty-five minutes later, we had a song,” she said.
The chemistry, Blake said, was just there.
Slowly, “Storming Heaven” has crept to where it is now: an almost finished piece.
In January, the pair brought the show to the West Virginia Public Theatre and West Virginia University to workshop the script and do a public reading.
“WVU has an incredible facility,” Davenport said. “There’s just so much talent there and so many resources. It was really the perfect place to develop this and everyone has been so excited about being part of it.”
Just working in West Virginia has helped develop the musical.
“We’re being informed by actual culture, which is great for us,” he said.
After the workshop, they cast the show using professional actors from New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.
They have high hopes for the first shows this weekend, though they expect there will be a few more changes and adjustments before they take the show further.
Getting a new show off the ground takes time and it’s still a long way from Morgantown to New York City.
Giardina had high hopes for the musical version of her book, though she said it could only be its own thing. Still, she said she was pleased with what she’d seen, so far.
“They really respect the themes of the book,” the author said. “They get it.”
And the music is really good, Giardina added.