‘Savage the Musical’ captures life of Indigenous woman who blazed a trail from carnivals to silent films

  • Wanda Savage, seen in the 1920s, joined a traveling circus as a sharpshooter. Her life inspired a new EP called “Savage the Musical,” by Amherst resident Nicolette Blount, Savage’s great-granddaughter.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Nicolette Blount, songwriter for “Savage the Musical,” is pictured with co-writers John Waynelovich of Turners Falls, on the left, and Lindel Hart of Greenfield, on the right.  —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Nicolette Blount, songwriter for “Savage the Musical, is pictured with co-writers John Waynelovich, of Turners Falls, on the left, and Lindel Hart, of Greenfield, on the right.  —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Wanda Savage grew up on a Chickasaw reservation where she learned bow and arrow skills, which caught the attention of a traveling circus. After joining the circus in the 1920s and traveling domestically and abroad, Savage had a career in silent films in Hollywood. CONTRIBUTED

  • In 2018, “Savage the Musical” was staged at the Academy of Music; perfoming the song “Wanda Savage” is Samantha Myburgh, an Amherst resident as the title character, with fellow performers Jenna DiDonato of Greenfield, Fallon Guin of Greenfield, Emma Wilburn of Shutesbury and Eula Sagan of Colrain.  CONTRIBUTED/JAIME ROBINSON

  • Nicolette J. Blount holds a photo of her great-grandmother, known as Wanda Savage, whose life formed the basis for Blount’s musical and EP. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nicolette J. Blount holds a photo of her great grand mother known as Wanda Savage who Blount wrote a musical and EP about. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/5/2021 12:08:24 PM

A new EP, “Savage the Musical,” written by Valley local Nicolette Blount, reflects the life it portrays. It’s got edge, it’s tantalizing, and it’s captivating.

Clocking in at just over 23 minutes, the seven-song
EP — released just last week — tells the story of Wanda Savage, a Native American woman of the Chickasaw Nation who rose to fame in the 1920s, domestically and internationally, for her sharpshooting skills as a traveling circus performer, and then as an actor and stunt double in Hollywood silent films.

The songwriter in this case is intimately familiar with the record’s real-life subject. Blount is the great-granddaughter of Savage, also known as Mattie Hardwick, and she drew upon family lore, newspaper clippings and archival footage to produce a wonderful record full of jazzy show tunes that capture Savage’s rebellious and charismatic spirit.

“I grew up with stories about her,” says Blount, who co-composed the music on the record and is also a Chickasaw tribal member. Blount herself has made a career of performing throughout her life, including roles in plays and opera performances in California, where she grew up, and she’s performed at the famed Carnegie Hall.

“The story is based on the fact that she overcame abuse and racism and just people being against women moving up in society because of misogyny to make a name for herself,” Blount says, calling her “a trailblazer and a strong lady.”

“She was definitely a pioneer in women’s rights,” Blount says. Savage would often wear pants at a time when it was considered a crime for women to do so in some states.

According to Blount, the narrative arc of “Savage the Musical” is one of an independent, divorced Indigenous mother who pursued a unique opportunity in the 1920s entertainment industry, which was steeped in racism and misogyny.

Songs from the record, such as “Take My Shot” and “Currency of Men,” are sleek, sultry jazzy tunes that exemplify Blount’s ability to tell stories with songs and give the listener a solid sense of what types of characters are involved in the play, without making it obvious they belong to a theatrical musical.

“Take My Shot,” sung by Blount and co-producer John Waynelovich, is a lively duet featuring a smooth-talking womanizer attempting to convince Savage to take him on as an assistant. “Currency of Men,” a sensual and provocative song sung by Christina Cerbone, is about another woman in the story, Savage’s “nemesis,” who brags about climbing the ladder of success using eyebrow-raising methods.

Even though the story of the show takes place a century ago, Blount says, “the show has a lot to say about current issues,” such as racism, discrimination and harassment toward women in the entertainment industry.

“Here she is, a woman, with an abusive husband, and her kids, and an opportunity to have a career,” Blount said about her great-grandmother. “And she took it, and she didn’t realize the ramifications it had for her kid. Her plan was to make money and come back and get her kids.”

An important relationship dynamic in the story is how Savage had to leave Blount’s grandfather when he was a child to pursue her unlikely dream of becoming a performer. As Blount explains, “Wanda the Musical” is a dramatized version of Savage’s real-life experiences, meaning that some aspects of the theatrical version are not exactly what really happened. For example, Wanda had six children throughout her life, but the show mainly focuses on the relationship between her and her son, Blount’s grandfather.

Savage’s career as a circus performer took her to Australia and England, Blount says, which she discovered by tracking her across newspaper archives she found online. “There are articles written about her that collaborated stories my family had told,” Blount says. Savage learned as a child how to shoot pistols from her family of “lawmen” while living on a Chickasaw reservation — a skill she turned into a prolific circus career.

Blount collaborated with Lindel Hart, a local writer and theater performer, and Waynelovich, a composer and arranger, to produce “Savage the Musical.” Hart helped Blount to write the book for the musical and Waynelovich helped co-write a few songs and with the piano compositions.

The EP is essentially a partial soundtrack to a dramatic musical that Blount worked on with a Broadway team, which performed two sold-out concerts at the 2019 New York Musical Festival. Their first western Massachusetts performance was slated for April 2020, but was paused mid-rehearsals due to the pandemic.

As for what happens next with live performances, “now we are in a waiting period,” Blount says. Regardless, there are preparations underway to bring the musical show to the stage. Recently, the Broadway team had a table reading on Zoom, which included Turners Falls resident Samantha Myburgh, who sings as Savage on the EP and who has portrayed her in the live perfomances.

Recording for the EP took place in Amherst at Northfire Recording Studio in collaboration with local artists, Blount says. An important facet of the record was to use as much local talent as possible. One notable exception was Chris Laurenc from New York, who also performed at the New York Musical Festival.

“If I did a full album, it would probably be 24 to 28 songs,” Blount said. It was a creative decision to pare down the EP to songs that could be enjoyable on their own. “It’s not typical theater music, and that’s exactly what I wanted,” she said. The songs are catchy and could seamlessly blend with airplay on jazz or even pop radio stations.

Blount calls the EP “pop-influenced jazz.” The piano melodies are often bluesy and evocative of the vaudeville era and performances Savage herself took part in. Soulful singing is the signature of the record. The songs vary from grand and fitting for Broadway to more minimalistic and intimate.

The opener to the EP, “Wanda Savage,” is a declarative, bombastic track that sets the tone for who Savage is as a character, and introduces her as a gun-toting and not-to-be-messed-with woman. There’s an edge and a bit of rock-and-roll zest to the opener. Lines such as “shooting from the hip from the native land,” and “better to be the hunter than be the hunted” are sung with gusto by Myburgh.

The rousing choruses, backed up with vocals by Blount and Waynelovich, proclaim, “I’m Wanda Savage,” and big, bombastic drum fills bring emotions to a peak.

By the second song, the mood shifts dramatically, and the record pivots to a more intimate and heartfelt note. “Warrior,” with vocals by Blount and Myburgh, opens with light piano tapping, and the message of the song is from the perspective of Wanda’s own mother. She is telling her children to be strong, and to “let your heart guide your path like a warrior.”

The minimalist instrumentation makes for a more intimate listening experience before the song builds up to a more dynamic ending. The arrangement of strings are subtle at the start, but grow with the song, along with the drums, for a cinematic crescendo that implores its central message. ”When I’m gone/ Don’t forget these lessons/ Keep these stories close to your heart.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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