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Webb's City: The Music

Composer Lee Ahlin has never been quite so excited about one of his works as he is about this one.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Composer Lee Ahlin, a native of Orlando, visited Webb’s City during its decline in the ‘70s. Both Ahlin and playwright Bill Leavengood teach theater at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg.
Lee Ahlin has met with some skepticism about his latest project of writing music and lyrics for Webb's City: The Musical.

Ahlin can't really blame people for thinking the new musical by him and playwright Bill Leavengood sounds like a chamber of commerce treatment of J.E. "Doc" Webb, whose famous (and "most unusual") drugstore was the South of the Border or Rock City of its day. And then there are the people who have never even heard of Webb's City, the St. Petersburg landmark that was shut down 20 years ago.

"If we can just get people to come see the play, I think they'll realize it's a story that goes far beyond a mere advertisement for St. Petersburg," Ahlin said.

Ahlin, an Orlando native who visited Webb's City when it was on its last legs (its "decrepit era," he said) in the 1970s, responded to the epic qualities of Webb, equal parts Babbitt and Horatio Alger.

"The musical is not about the drugstore; it's about Doc Webb," he said. "It's a story about a man who does not have time for his family and who has all sorts of conflict in his personal life that are a direct result of his drive as a businessman. That's a theme I think just about everybody is going to identify with. It's a very universal story, rather than a story about a drugstore that sat in the middle of downtown St. Pete."

There's even a scene in the show that deals with segregation and the city's symbol dating back to the 1920s, the green benches.

Return of Webb's City
When you try to explain Webb's City to people who weren't in St. Petersburg during its heyday, you soon find yourself reduced to muttering words like "Disney World . . . the '30s . . . mall . . . P.T. Barnum . . . cheap shopping fun . . . carnival." And that's before you get to the mermaids, the kissing rabbit and the tic-tac-toe-playing chickens.

Who was Doc Webb?
Perhaps the only thing more amazing than James Earl "Doc" Webb's life and career is that it has taken this long to turn it into a stage show. If the particulars weren't so well documented in history books and newspaper clippings, you would think it had to be the stuff of imagination.

"Webb was instrumental in allowing black people of St. Petersburg to enjoy the same rights as white people," Ahlin said. "The metaphor for the issue is that the only way black people could sit on a green bench was if they were a nanny, if they were holding a white baby."

Leavengood, who grew up in St. Petersburg, based his portrait of Webb as sympathetic to the civil rights movement in part on the merchant's commercial necessity of maintaining good relations with the largely black community that surrounded his store and did business there.

In doing research, the playwright read about Webb lobbying against an urban renewal bill in the 1960s that was opposed by blacks in St. Petersburg. He heard anecdotal accounts from black residents of Webb's personal decency.

On the other hand, he also read of racial unrest during a garbage strike that hurt Webb's relations with blacks.

"I listened closely for it, but I never heard that he was a racist," said Leavengood, who invented a black chauffeur named Leo to serve as Webb's confidant and "the voice of the common man" in the play.

Webb's City comes with a good pedigree. Ahlin has written music and lyrics for eight American Stage park productions of Shakespeare plays, the most recent being The Winter's Tale in 1999. Leavengood, whose work has been widely staged, was the subject this season of American Stage's New Visions play-reading series.

[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
For playwright Bill Leavengood, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Webb’s City: The Musical is a family affair. He’s also directing the show, his wife, Diana, is production manager, and daughter Alice is in the cast.
Both teach theater at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg. They collaborated previously on a musical called Hellenback High that premiered at Shorecrest. "It's a Faustian tale in which a dorky high school student sells his soul to the devil to become popular," Ahlin said.

Ahlin and Leavengood were commissioned, and received $5,000 apiece, to write Webb's City by the Pinellas County Millennium Celebration, a yearlong series of civic and cultural events put on by Pinellas County and St. Petersburg Junior College. With a cash budget of about $150,000, plus another $50,000 in in-kind contributions, the musical was funded entirely through private sponsors, according to producer Michelle Routh.

The cast of 35 includes a mix of professional actors, including Steve Wilkerson as Doc Webb; Angela Bond as his second wife, Aretta; Joshua Wolf Coleman, who plays Leo; and students. A six-piece band in the pit will play Ahlin's score, which he describes as a pastiche of musical styles from the 1920s to the '70s.

"Until now, I've always written music for fantasies, for Shakespeare and that sort of thing," Ahlin said. "Writing for something that actually existed has been a whole new challenge for me."

But if his instincts are correct, Webb's City: The Musical could prove the skeptics wrong.

"I've never been quite so excited about something," he said. "It's almost eerie. Usually there are moments in every play that I'm queasy about. But I've never had so much confidence as I have with this one."

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