Distant Thunder, the latest in Lyric Theatre’s New Works Initiative, is a world-premiere musical that has already had a life and story before it ever made it to opening night. Broadway alum Shaun Taylor-Corbett first experienced the Blackfeet Nation, a Native community in Montana, when he was fifteen years old. On a trip with his mother, famed choreographer and director Lynne Taylor-Corbett, he says he “experienced magic,” learning about his heritage for the first time.
After discovering a culture that was alive and thriving, Taylor-Corbett was inspired to begin work on a story that reflected his own life experiences. Distant Thunder tells the story of Darrell Waters, a young lawyer who returns to his childhood home in Montana with a business deal to make. When that lucrative opportunity means certain death for the language and culture of his people, worlds collide and consequences are faced.
Prior to writing the show with his mother Lynne, Taylor-Corbett performed on Broadway as an original cast member of In the Heights and then starred as Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys. After eight years of development and workshops, Distant Thunder was finally ready for a full production. In collaboration with Lyric, rehearsals were in full swing and the show was slated for a world premiere in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit and the performing arts industry completely shut down.
Lyric promised to revisit the show whenever their doors opened again, and since that time, the First Americans Museum opened and serves as the perfect backdrop for this unique new work. Lyric premieres this new musical on the grounds in partnership with FAM’s Executive Director James Pepper Henry and Cultural Ambassador Ace Greenwood.
When discussing the plot, Taylor-Corbett said “Distant Thunder explores what happens when a community is torn between their language and culture and the promise of economic opportunity. Especially considering the rich Native cultures here, I think Distant Thunder will resonate with all Oklahomans.”
Taylor-Corbett is also starring in the role as Darrell, and spoke recently with Oklahoma Gazette about that process.
“Playing Darrell is a real honor because he is named after my mentor, Darrell Robes Kipp.” Taylor-Corbett said. “There are a lot of aspects of the character’s life and mannerisms that are very similar to my own. The journey of my life over the last 10 years is very similar to Darrell's. Lynne and I wanted to create a character who had been taken away from his home and his culture, but who ends up finding his way back with the help of his family, friends and community. I think many audience members who are new to Native culture will follow his journey as a bit of an outsider in the beginning of the show, and learn about contemporary Native life and culture as Darrell learns about it.”
When discussing how Native audiences will view the show, Taylor-Corbett said, “The Indigenous audiences will recognize Darrell in the many relatives that move away from their tribal nations, only to come back years later to connect to their communities again. Many Native people will also see themselves in Darrell, those who had to walk in the White world to survive but who also want to reconnect to their indigenous homelands.”
He continued, “I think I fully realize how vulnerable it is when the show is going on and I'm hearing every word and song that pertains to something very important in my life. It is vulnerable, but also so rewarding. I've wanted to bring the magic of my experience from Browning, Montana to the world. This show also feels very authentic and represents so much of my journey that I know it will impact audiences.
“Distant Thunder started off as a specific story in Browning, but it has become a unifying story that resonates with many different communities. So many different Native nations are also represented in the cast, and they have added so much to the show that it feels like it is a story that could take place in many communities around the Americas. I have a lot of family seeing the show, so I think it is also a truly healing journey for us all. I think after so much time working on it, I have also developed a strength in sharing the personal sides of the story.”
When asked about his favorite aspects of the creative process so far, Taylor-Corbett said, “I think my favorite part of the process has been seeing how big of an effect it has been having on all of the people who come into contact with the show. Native people who see the show are so proud to see themselves represented on stage in a contemporary pop musical. Young people have been getting in touch to ask if they could use some of the songs in their showcases, and I'm hoping that they are inspired to write their own stories now that the door is opening for Native theatre. Having this group of incredible human beings to work with for the last 8-plus years, becoming a community that believes in something so much that we keep getting together to tell this story.
“And finally, I also have to say, getting to work with my mother who really has been a guiding light for me throughout my life. This is as much about our journey that she took me on when I was 15 and how that changed my life.”
Taylor-Corbett is playing dual roles as both actor and writer to bring this show to life. When asked if he had to choose between the two, he said, “I believe that this show has opened so many doors for me as a writer and creative collaborator that I want to continue this work moving forward. I have had such a great acting career, and I plan on continuing, but I think it will be a combination of both writing and acting that I will be doing. It's really about how interesting each project is for me to do at this point. I've been so spoiled that I want everything I do to really mean something for our society. I also think I'm going to get back to writing pop songs with Chris Wiseman, my music and lyrics collaborator on Distant Thunder. Let's see what else inspires us.”
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s world premiere musical Distant Thunder runs March 23 – 27 at the First Americans Museum, 659 First Americans Blvd. For tickets, visit lyrictheatreokc.com or call the box office at 405-524-9312.