Midnight’s Curtain Call

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Three decades after John Berendt’s book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” swept the nation, a team of world-class talent is finally reimagining the story as a musical with Broadway aspirations


WHEN THE CURTAIN COMES UP at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre on June 25, the world will get its first glimpse at the musical adaptation of “Midnight in the Garden and Good Evil.” The moment is decades in the making for producers and seasoned veterans of show business Craig Haffner, Sherry Wright, Hal Luftig and Kevin Connor, and 30 years since John Berendt’s nonfiction book sent shockwaves through Savannah.

Bringing the story of Jim Williams’ murder trials from the page to the stage has overcome a series of false starts, stops and a pandemic. This summer’s premiere wouldn’t be possible — or perhaps as powerful — without the exact team of creative talent that have come together now, including Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown.

Whenever Brown starts working on a new show, there are two questions weighing on his mind. “Who am I doing it with? It has to be people I enjoy and people whose work I enjoy,” he says. “And then, more importantly, on a musical level, can I hear it?”

three men standing together laughing and looking at sheet music
Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, director Rob Ashford and book writer Taylor Mac in a workshop at the New 42 Studios in New York. // Photo by Bruce Glikas

The first time Brown was approached about a musical adaptation of “Midnight,” he passed. “When I looked through that version, I didn’t entirely understand how to make a musical about it. It didn’t seem right to me,” he recalls. “But I said, ‘If you ever come up with a different way of looking at the show, let me know.’”

The next time he got a call, years later, he met with his longtime friend and the musical’s director, Rob Ashford — a Tony- and Emmy-Award winner for choreography — and the inimitable playwright Taylor Mac. “Taylor is a tremendously exciting writer and someone who I wanted to meet,” Brown says of the MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama. “Everything Taylor said sounded exciting and unexpected. It felt like taking the book and using it as a starting point for some really interesting ideas about Savannah’s place in the world.”

This time, Brown had a dream team — and he could hear the musical sing. “The nice thing about ‘Midnight’ is that it’s enormously musical in its texture,” he says. “The book itself has music baked into it.”

The front of the Mercer Williams House Museum
The Mercer-Williams House Museum on Bull Street at the southwestern end of Monterey Square.

The Sounds of Savannah 

“The Book” — as Savannahians call it — is loosely constructed around the murder trials of Jim Williams, an internationally known antiques dealer, historic preservationist and philanthropist who was convicted, then later acquitted, of the shooting death of his lover, Danny Hansford. Published in 1994, before the era of true crime podcasts and binge-worthy Netflix documentaries, the book spent a record-setting 216 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list and introduced many people around the world to Savannah. 

Those who’ve read it, watched Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film adaption or toured the Mercer Williams House — the scene of the crime, where Williams lived and later died himself —  may not immediately think of music when they recall the book’s series of events or its charmingly eccentric cast of characters. The music Brown refers to is more subtle and atmospheric. 

“I know that sounds kind of mystical, but it’s not really,” he says. “It’s very technical. In a lot of ways, something about the milieu about any given story is going to suggest music to me.”

Musical producer Hal Luftig, author John Berendt, producer Craig Haffner, producer Sherry Wright and book writer Taylor Mac celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” // Courtesy Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil The Musical

There are the crooner melodies and jazz tunes of celebrated songwriter Johnny Mercer, whose great-grandfather built the 1860s mansion Williams called home, and pianist Emma Kelly, known for her ability to play thousands of songs by memory. Then, there’s the disco sounds in the world of Lady Chablis, a transgender performer at Club One. There are Joe Odom and “Mandy Nichols” (a pseudonym), who performed music at their now-closed bar Sweet Georgia Brown’s in City Market. And, for those who listen closer, there’s the sound of the breeze rustling through the foliage of Bonaventure Cemetery and the ambient noises of the city while sitting in one of the squares. 

To hear the sounds of Savannah for themselves, the musical’s creative team hasn’t solely relied on reading Berendt’s book. Mac says he and Berendt met often for dinner, where they discussed some of the stories the author wasn’t able to include in the book and all that happened after the book was published.

While based in New York, the producers also brought the team to the Hostess City on dozens of immersion trips. 

“My favorite thing to do is just hang out in the squares and people watch,” Mac says. “That’s basically my research — hanging out. Attending cocktail parties, going to restaurants and talking to locals — a little bit like Berendt did.” 

Grave markers in Bonaventure Cemetery
Bonaventure Cemetery

Made for the Stage

In turn, the creative team even invited a few influential Savannahians, including the stylish philanthropist and business leader Ellen Bolch, Levy Jewelers owner Lowell Kronowitz, Visit Savannah President Joseph Marinelli and former American film producer Stratton Leopold of Leopoid’s Ice Cream, to join readings and workshops in New York. 

“It’s our nature to invite people into the process,” Haffner says, adding the consultants pulled no punches — providing feedback to ensure the script reads authentically. Bolch was quick to correct, for example, that University of Georgia fans cheer “Go Dawgs!” not “bulldogs.” 

The company also consulted with Williams’ nieces, Amanda and Susan Kingery, who oversee their late uncle’s home as the Mercer Williams House Museum and the adjacent Carriage House Shop. They say they appreciate the producers’ dedication in trying to represent their “Uncle Jimmy” as they knew him — an accomplished man who was very smart, hardworking, handsome, charismatic and generous. (Editor’s note: At the time of print, the company announced Tom Hewitt will debut the role of Jim Williams for the stage.)

While the Kingerys acknowledge that it’s a tall order to expect an actor’s depiction to convey him perfectly, they are hopeful that the production is in good hands. “I feel very secure that if there is a team who can do it, this is the team,” says Amanda. “They are very invested in the project and making sure we’re happy, when they didn’t have to include us at all.” 

“There is a quality in Savannah that celebrates the odd, celebrates the people that are a little bit different. That’s a good thing.”

— Taylor Mac, Book writer

As for Kronowitz, he had an instant, positive reaction when he saw Chablis embodied by actor J. Harrison Ghee, who won a Tony Award in 2023 for their performance in “Some Like It Hot” — making history as one of the first openly nonbinary performers to win in a leading individual performance category.

The casting decision is a big deal, not only because Ghee is a spectacular performer, but because of the novelty of the role. (In the film, Chablis played herself.) “Not only is the Chablis character so important and relevant with telling this story, we also think that there is potential here to create something that is an imprint for Broadway history,” says Luftig.

He also points out that the story of “Midnight” deals with some “rough truths about the South and change” — which can take an emotional toll on the people performing the show every night. “Actors bring parts of themselves to the role, and the role becomes part of the actor,” he says. “You need a cast that can support the weight of that, and I know Ghee can.”


J. Harrison Ghee
J. Harrison Ghee, The Lady Chablis

After a breakout Broadway performance as Lola in “Kinky Boots,” Ghee originated the role of Jerry/Daphne in “Some Like It Hot,” a 2022 stage musical based on the1959 film of the same name — earning the 2023 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical and the 2024 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

Tom Hewitt
Tom Hewitt, Jim Williams

From Hades to Pontius Pilate, and Dracula to Captain Hook, Hewitt is well versed in playing Broadway’s bad guys. He’s also recieved Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his performance of Frank N Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sierra Boggess
Sierra Boggess, Emma Dawes

Broadway fans may know Boggess for re-inventing the coveted role of Christine Daae in Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” or her Broadway debut as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” which received Drama Desk and Drama League nominations.

Assembling the Ensemble

Among fans of “Midnight,” readers are often divided on who is their favorite character. For Mac, it has always been Chablis. 

“I have such a fondness for the book because it came into my life at a pinnacle moment, right when I was leaving home. I was on my own for the first time,” Mac says. “It was the first book I felt was embraced by Americans where I could see that it had anything about queerness in it. It helped me to see that I didn’t have to have a career in basement bars. I could actually branch out because America is ready for the conversation and embrace of these eccentric people and queerness.”

So when audiences experience “Midnight” as a musical, they can expect to see Chablis front and center. To condense the story into a two-hour show and make it work for the stage, other characters may be modified with different names and hybrid personality traits to create new roles, like that of Emma Dawes, played by Sierra Boggess. And Berendt, who narrates the book and is portrayed by John Cusack in the film, won’t be embodied on the stage at all. Rather, the audience is cast in his role, with performers using direct address — breaking the fourth wall. “Instead of having a character that is coming to Savannah for the first time and learning about these people, all of the performers treat the audience as if they are writing a book about Savannah,” Mac says. “It’s a big competition to see who gets in the book.”

a man and woman standing with the Bird Girl statue replica
Tanya Birl and Rob Ashford with a replica of the famous Bird Girl statue. // Photo by Bruce Glikas

“I don’t feel like I am exaggerating when I say this is happening at the exact right time in history, and Broadway needs it… The theater community and the world at large are ready to consume a work like this.”

— Tanya Birl, Choreographer

Mac also takes some artistic license when depicting the relationship between Jim Williams and Danny Hansford, drawing inspiration from letters the couple exchanged.

“I felt like what we don’t really get to see [in the book] is the intimacy and kind of love Jim and Danny had,” Mac says. “There are questions about the manipulation and the complications. But they did have an oddly intimate relationship in that Jim was certainly trying to improve Danny’s life.” 

For the show’s choreographer, Tanya Birl, the entrypoint to the story was the character of Minerva, a mysterious Voodoo priestess based on real-life root doctor Victoria Boles.

“She was holding the spiritual energy of what Savannah is,” Birl says. When she visited Savannah, she was on a mission to explore the Gullah culture and the city’s spiritual side. She spent time at the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center of Savannah, in cemeteries and tracing the path of slave ships — all of which informed her creative process.

“Everyone will have a favorite character. Who they like and who they don’t like, it isn’t obvious,” Birl says of the ensemble. “It’s not even good versus bad. That’s what I love about this — it blurs the line between good and evil. …We have all these characters who lie in different places on the spectrum of being human. It’s really brave to produce and create something that gives that much choice.”

Crowds of people waiting to get into Clary's Cafe in Savannah, Georgia
Clarey’s Cafe

Setting the Scene

There is one, clear main character, however: Savannah itself.

“There is a quality in Savannah that celebrates the odd, celebrates the people that are a little bit different. That’s a good thing,” Mac says.

Haffner fell under all of the city’s charms long before “Midnight” was published. “I knew Savannah because I’m a history geek,” he says. That, and because of his first job in Los Angeles, where he met Richard Noble Jones, a descendant of settlers who arrived with James Oglethorpe. “Jones told me, ‘I would be able to invite you for a drink at Wormsloe except that my family lost it during the Depression.’”

When the book came out in 1994, Haffner remembers finishing it within two days. He connected with Berendt, and together they worked on a documentary-style special called “Midnight in Savannah” that aired on A&E in the fall of 1997. “It was the biggest ratings that A&E ever had, and it cemented this long friendship with John,” says Haffner, who first raised the topic of a musical in 2009 after seeing the revival of “Ragtime” on Broadway.

Turns out, Berendt had kept the stage rights, although he had always thought of it as a play. “I told him, ‘It’s an opera,’” Haffner says.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil book cover

Show Time

While Brown may be first focused on the music and the team dynamics, there’s another critical question guiding the team’s decision to premiere “Midnight” this summer: Why now?

“We are trying to tell a story about where we are right now through the lens of Savannah in the late ’80s and early ’90s, because so much of the roots of what this country is going through, and what even the world is going through — those roots are there,” Brown says. “There were things that were already starting to poke through the ground at that time.”

“I don’t feel like I am exaggerating when I say this is happening at the exact right time in history, and Broadway needs it,” Birl adds. “The theater community and the world at large are ready to consume a work like this.”

The show is scheduled to run at The Goodman through Aug. 4, 2024. According to Luftig, who has produced dozens of premieres ranging from “David Byrne’s American Utopia” to “Kinky Boots” to “Legally Blonde,” The Goodman — and Chicago at large — are friendly and supportive, giving new shows a shot at fair reviews.

And while it’s too soon to say for sure where audiences might see “Midnight” on marquee lights next, the company has set its sights on Broadway.

“No one writes a big musical with the hope that it only plays in Chicago and then shuts down,” Brown says. 

“We are running a marathon,” Haffner adds. The hope, he says, is for the show to run for years in various forms — first on Broadway, and then tour in cities around the country and around the world. 

For those fortunate enough to see the debut, the company ensures audiences are in for a fun time. “Come prepared for a party,” Birl says. “No one puts on a party like Savannah.”


Get a glimpse of the world-class talent helming the Goodman Theatre’s production of “Midnight”

Rob Ashford, director

Broadway-goers know Ashford’s work from favorites like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Frozen,” “Shrek,” “The Wedding Singer” and more. His impressive career also spans to Hollywood, including choreography for Disney’s “Cinderella,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Ted 2,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile.” He has even choreographed and staged several Tony Awards and Academy Awards, winning an Emmy for his work on Baz Luhrmann’s 2009 production number featuring Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé.

Taylor Mac, book writer

Known for his wacky and wonderful maximalist performances like his “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on HBO, Mac is an American actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer and singer-songwriter. In 2017, he received a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Jason Robert Brown
Jason Robert Brown, composer and lyricist

With an extensive résumé that includes roles as a conductor, arranger, orchestrator, director and performer, in addition to composer and lyricist, Brown is best known for his scores to renowned, modern musicals, including “The Last Five Years” and “Parade,” winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Score and the 2023 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Brown also received a Tony for “The Bridges of Madison County” and nominations for several others. 

Tanya Birl, choreographer

A former Broadway performer, Birl expanded her career as a choreographer and movement director for productions such as “How I Learned What I Learned,” (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), “Twelfth Night” (The Public Theater), “The Red Letter Plays” (The Signature Theater), “Comedy of Errors” (Classic Stage company) and “As You Like It” (The Guthrie Theater), among others. She is a 2023-24 MAP Fund grantee, a 2022 NoMAA artist in residence and a High-Arts/Critical Breaks fellow in collaboration with Oregon Shakespeare Festival New Works.


Must-see stops for “Midnight” fans

  • Club One: Cabaret performances honor the legacy of The Lady Chablis at this downtown night club. Purchase tickets at clubone-online.com.
  • Bonaventure Cemetery: On a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River, the historic cemetery dates back to 1846. Maintained by the Bonaventure Historical Society, the grounds are open to the public at no cost. For guided tour times and more information, visit bonaventurehistorical.org.
  • Clary’s Cafe: The Abercorn Street breakfast and lunch staple looks nearly the same as it did in Clint Eastwood’s film. There are no reservations, and weekend mornings are busy, so prepare to wait outside with locals and fellow “Midnight” fans. claryscafe.com
  • Mercer Williams House Museum: Designed by John S. Norris for Gen. Hugh W. Mercer, great-grandfather of celebrated songwriter Johnny Mercer, the circa-1860s house on Monterey Square is open daily for guided tours, which highlight the home’s architectural significance paired with Williams’ design prowess. Find times and ticket information at mercerhouse.com.
  • The Carriage House Shop: Located in the carriage house directly behind the Mercer Williams House Museum, the shop offers new and vintage gifts, artwork, antiques and books. To learn about Williams’ legacy of historic preservation in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, pick up a copy of “More Than Mercer House: Savannah’s Jim Williams & His Southern Houses,” written by his late sister, Dorothy Williams Kingery. mercerhouse.com/shopping
  • Bird Girl Statue: Created by Sylvia Shaw Judson, the sculpture became famous after appearing on the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” in a photograph by Jack Leigh. Due to its increased popularity, the sculpture was relocated from Bonaventure Cemetery to Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center and remains one of the museum’s most visited works. telfair.org

Emily McCarthy Savannah magazine cover

Find this feature and so much more in Savannah magazine’s May/June 2024 “Leading Ladies” issue.