By Alan Burke
---- — SALEM — Jim Kilroy decided on the topic of his new musical “Storyville” after its locale, New Orleans, was hit by Hurricane Katrina.
He started to hear certain sentiments, people saying things like, “Good, they might not rebuild the (mostly black) 6th Ward.” And, “Maybe now we can get a white mayor.”
His story — and he’s taken on the extraordinary task of writing the music, lyrics and book — is set in a far-off New Orleans, the Big Easy at the turn of the last century, a place where beauty and romance mix easily with race and racism. Kilroy examines the impact of even trivial differences in skin color.
It’s a story that sings well enough to have attracted Tony Award winner (for “Book of Mormon”) Larry Hochman to do the orchestration.
“Storyville is a beautiful and gripping work of theater,” Hochman says in a blurb. “I was attracted to the score immediately. ... I became totally intrigued. It has genuine heart and soul.”
What makes his work even more remarkable is the fact Kilroy doesn’t live and has never lived in New Orleans. In fact, he was born in Cambridge and has spent nearly four decades here on the North Shore, where he runs the Piano Warehouse in Danvers. What’s more, for a period he had a quintessentially New England job — playing for the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox as a replacement for organist John Kiley from 1988 to 1994.
But he does have a heartfelt link to New Orleans — music. He’s been a regular at Mardi Gras, often as a jazz drummer.
Currently, Kilroy is trying to find producers willing to put up the money, as much as $25 million, required to mount his musical, possibly for off-Broadway. In addition to all the work he’s done in creating “Storyville,” he’s spent $20,000 of his own money trying to attract backers. Among other things, the funds went for Hochman’s orchestrations and to get three songs recorded and made available to potential investors.
Just as Kilroy’s link to New Orleans came via a roundabout route, so his path to music was equally indirect. He can remember the longing to get outside among his friends when his parents insisted on piano lessons as early as age 5.
Despite that, he confesses, he loved the piano. “And if my parents were going to give me lessons,” he said, “I had to practice.”
After high school he went to Salem State, studying to be a teacher. Before embarking on a career, however, he served a stint in the Army, where he was an intelligence agent. It was just prior to the dark days of the Vietnam War and Kilroy won’t discuss his duties. Importantly, when he put on civilian clothes again, teaching was somehow off the table.
He knew what he wanted to accomplish with his life. And it was something with a beat.
He played in various bands, started his piano business in 1979 and traveled, playing in places like New Orleans. “I’ve played at events all over the country,” he says. “I’ve played at weddings ... and for shows at the community-theater level.”
He also married, and he and his wife, Rose, raised four kids. “Luckily,” he says, “I have a very understanding wife who supported me.”
A friendship with Kiley led to his becoming the substitute organist at Boston Garden and Fenway Park. When illness felled Kiley, the job became his. “It was a fun job,” he says. “I love baseball.”
He became friends with the late Johnny Pesky of Swampscott — “An amazing guy. I don’t think there’s a person on earth who didn’t like Johnny Pesky.”
Eventually, Kilroy would become disillusioned, however, with the reliance on CDs and youth-oriented music, as a substitute for the traditional organ.
“Storyville” isn’t Kilroy’s first attempt at composing. “All my life I’ve been writing,” he says.
For the show he’s written 23 songs reflecting the music of the era, the beginnings of the Jazz Age. It took six years to create. Only a few have been successful at tackling together the music, lyrics and book, Meredith Wilson who wrote “The Music Man” being one.
Kilroy’s story is about an 18-year-old girl on her way to the Octoroon Ball. A tradition in old New Orleans, the ball was a place where wealthy men could make contact with beautiful women called octoroons because they claimed one-eighth African blood.
Their lineage barred them from marrying into white society, but they would serve nicely as mistresses. The system was so well-established that legal contracts were signed, with the women given houses and servants.
The woman in Kilroy’s play, however, while sent by her mother to the ball, realizes that virtually nothing in her appearance differs from the white people around her. She begins to wonder why she can’t simply be white and have all the advantages that go with it.
Fans can hear some “Storyville” songs at youtube.com/watch?v=5Z4nlCozFUA.
Kilroy is also running a Kickstarter campaign to try to raise funds to produce his play. For information, visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/970847997/storyville-the-musical.