Martha Velez has lived a storied life.
"I've been so, so blessed," she said.
Velez reflected on a career that has unfolded with a series of serendipitous turns — a folk singing stint with the Gaslight Singers in the mid 1960s, a stint in the Broadway musical Hair, recording a blues-rock gig with then-session musicians Eric Clapton and Christine McVie, and a handful of albums including Escape From Babylon produced by Bob Marley. She landed in Los Angeles after the release of her 1975 album, American Heartbeat, and ended up with a regular role on Falcon's Crest and a small part in the 1993 movie Father Hood starring Patrick Swayze and Halle Berry.
Now living in Spring Hill, Velez has become a musical playwright.
Her latest creation, American Heartbeat — named after her last album — debuts this weekend at the Richey Suncoast Theatre. It is also one of 25 musicals contending for 20 spots in the Invited Shows category of the 11th annual New York Musical Theatre Festival held in July.
Velez should hear by the end of April about that.
"It's very exciting news — we've been selected from thousands of entries from throughout the world," she said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."
In some ways American Heartbeat is a culmination of her talent. It intertwines a dramatic play Velez wrote while living in Los Angeles called Power of the Powerless with some select recordings from her 1975 album and a couple of new tunes she wrote with her husband, James Reid, who is an accomplished violinist.
"It takes place in the recession of 1992 and deals with a Vietnam vet Marine dealing with day laborers — immigrants — that he used to hire and now has to work side by side with," Velez explained. "A relationship develops between him and one of the day laborers and they end up saving each other."
Velez said she was inspired by musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables. And while her original play was written in the 1990s, her thought is that the musical version should still resonate today.
"These musicals bring a story and music together in a way that is also socially responsible and uplifts the hope of people who are in challenging situations," Velez said. "I saw it as way to put a face the invisible people we walk by every day — that guy that's a homeless Vietnam vet and the immigrant standing on a street corner waiting for a truck to come by so he can work because he has a family to support back home."
Velez, who has acted in local community theater productions of Chicago, ShadowBox and Doubt, a Parable under the stage name Morgan Reid, pulled on local talent when casting Heartbeat.
George Dwyer (Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, Camelot) plays the lead role of Jarvis, a jaded Vietnam vet. Scott Tilson, a trained operatic singer, plays Marcos, a Mexican immigrant. Among those in supporting roles are Toni Merchant (FAME, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls) and Jesslyn Kostopoulos (God Father's Meshuggener Wedding, Anything Goes, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity). Serving as musical director, is Robert Boyd, leader of the 42nd Street Big Band.
"I am very excited to bring a new musical production to the stage for the first time," said Marie Skelton, executive director of the Richey Suncoast Theatre. "Martha is a well known, established actress/singer with a successful career, and I am excited to give her, Richey Suncoast Theatre and the public an opportunity to see and participate in the process of bringing a new play to life. It's an exciting time."
One fun twist, Skelton said, is that audience members will be able to take part in question and answer session following the performances.
"Their input and comments will help the author and actors to improve their performances and the play — a very nice experience for the audience to actually have an input into shaping the play … for future audiences," Skelton said.
Some proceeds from American Heartbeat will go back to Richey Suncoast Theatre to support future productions as well as local art endeavors in general, Velez said.
American Heartbeat is being produced by the nonprofit Pro Community Productions which was recently started by local residents Ed Brady, Janet Brady, Daniel Washington and James Reid as a way to fund community art ventures, Velez said.
"The arts always enrich a community and we want to branch out to help," she said. "Be it art galleries or other theater groups, chamber music groups — we want to help all of these organizations that are always struggling."
Michele Miller can be reached a [email protected]