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Florida in F-flat

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Henry Flagler, the musical. That's right, somebody has dreamed up the idea of making a musical about the robber baron who laid the foundation of modern-day Florida.

Would you believe Flagler and his business partner, John D. Rockefeller, breaking into song and dance as they draw up papers to form the Standard Oil Trust?

"Let the big fish eat the small," Flagler and Rockefeller sing in a soft-shoe number, brandishing canes and beaming at the thought of vertical monopoly. "It's dog eat dog, after all."

Here's a musical Floridians can appreciate. Flagler: Empire Builder of Florida aspires to do for tourism and real estate development what My Fair Lady did for English diction.

And talk about resonance. The show is being premiered in St. Augustine, the old Spanish fortress town where many of the events depicted onstage happened.

Stranger subjects have been made to sing and dance _ who could have predicted Victor Hugo's tome on the French revolution, Les Miserables, would translate to the musical stage _ but it still must have been quite a stretch to imagine a show about Flagler. Whose idea was this, anyway?

"It's something I've had in the back of my mind for a long time," says Tom Rahner, who wrote the play that is the basis of the musical.

Rahner is sipping coffee in a window booth of a restaurant on Granada Street. It's a section of St. Augustine full of richly ornamented buildings of Spanish and Moorish design, a fantasy land of domes and spires and archways.

"Everything you see from this window, Flagler owned," he says. "He built the Ponce de Leon, he built the Alcazar Hotel, he purchased the Casa Monica, so this entire complex was Flagler's."

St. Augustine was Flagler's foothold in Florida. The Ponce de Leon was the first luxury hotel in what was then a subtropical backwater. The hotel's opening in 1888 set in motion Florida's transformation to vacation paradise and fourth most populous state.

"If it hadn't been for Flagler, Florida would probably be like Wyoming _ underdeveloped, which might not be a bad thing," Rahner says. "No one man in the history of the United States has been as influential in the development of a state as him."

Rahner, 60, is chairman of the performing arts department at Flagler College, which has occupied the Ponce de Leon since 1968. With his neat mustache, Rahner somewhat resembles the paintings, statues and other representations of Flagler that are ubiquitous at the school.

The author of Flagler is that rare thing, a native Floridian. He is a fifth-generation resident of St. Augustine, the self-proclaimed Ancient City whose narrow cobbled streets, high walled-in gardens and downtown slave market, among many other old architectural features, make it one of the few places in the state with a sense of history, a lot of it stemming from Flagler.

"I'd heard about Flagler all my life," Rahner says. "My grandmother, with whom I was very close, had seen Flagler as a girl. The Flaglers used to throw a Christmas party for every child in St. Johns County. All they had to do was show up and every kid got a present. So he was just part of the milieu during her lifetime. My father had some recollection of him, too. He was 14 when Flagler died in 1913. I've been surrounded by the guy all my life."

Flagler first came to St. Augustine in 1877, when he was seeking a salubrious climate for his first wife, Mary, who suffered from respiratory problems. He didn't return again until 1883. By then Mary had died and Flagler was married to his second wife, Alice. In St. Augustine the second time around, he had an epiphany.

"He was here in the dead of winter, and it was beautiful," Rahner says. "There were orange trees blossoming, there were flowers, there was sunshine. Back in New York it was 10 below zero, and here he was in paradise. He thought, "My God, people would pay good money for this.' "

Flagler poured his money into Florida, building hotels and other businesses, carving orange groves out of the swampland and laying down tracks for his Florida East Coast Railway. Though he eventually moved to Palm Beach, where he built a mansion called Whitehall, Flagler retained a fondness for St. Augustine. He is buried there, along with his first wife and daughter, in a marble tomb at Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Now there's a musical that tells all about it. Flagler is a rags-to-riches saga that begins with young Henry striking out on his own from his humble childhood home in upstate New York, bidden farewell by his mother in a plaintive duet, Henry, Can You Hear Me? Seventy years later, the show winds up with the tycoon's estranged son, Harry, rushing to his father's deathbed in Florida to reprise the opening tune in Father, Can You Hear Me?

Flagler won't be confused with the latest from Stephen Sondheim. Rahner directed the production for Limelight Theatre, with a mix of professional and amateur actors, in the Flagler College Auditorium. The nearly three-hour show tends toward a civics-class earnestness, though it doesn't gloss over the skeletons in Flagler's closet, such as his marital infidelities.

It wasn't always intended as a musical. Two years ago, when Rahner had completed a rough draft of his play, he decided to incorporate music into it. He turned for advice to Dan Humbert, a lawyer and musician who had recently moved to the area. He asked Humbert to read the play and suggest a few period tunes for incidental music.

"I got real excited," Humbert says. "A light bulb went off in my head. "People love musicals,' I told Tom. "Why not broaden the appeal of this by doing it as a musical?' "

Humbert, 42, is a more typical Floridian than Rahner in that he is a transplant. A Pennsylvania native who practiced law in the Washington area for 14 years, he now does just enough lawyering from his house on St. Augustine Beach to pay the bills, freeing the rest of his time to pursue his ambition to be a composer.

Flagler has 15 songs, performed by the cast to a faux orchestra. To keep costs down, Humbert produced the score on the computer in his home recording studio, using sampled sounds to create the equivalent of an 18-piece band. The synthetic music was loaded onto compact discs that are played over the theater's sound system.

The lawyer turned composer was intrigued by the human side of Flagler. "What is drama really about?" he says. "Drama is about emotions and relationships. Conflict, of course. All those elements were present in this man's life. One of the things I wanted to do was to look inside the man and see if we could shed any light on what made him tick."

However, Flagler made it tough on songwriters looking for emotional hooks. The letters he left behind don't reveal much of his inner life. In part, that was the way of the businessman, playing things close to the vest. It also was a sign of the times, the turn of the century, when people kept their thoughts to themselves and didn't express their feelings.

For inspiration Humbert looked to David Leon Chandler's 1986 book Henry Flagler, which indulges in a little psychobiography. Chandler theorizes that Flagler's Florida venture amounted to an act of atonement for the death of his first wife. Mary might have lived longer in the Florida climate, but she wouldn't stay in St. Augustine without her husband, and he was consumed by his business in New York.

Mary's death in 1881 caused a rift between Flagler and his only son, Harry, who blamed his father for neglecting her needs. He also resented his stepmother, Alice, who originally was hired as a nurse for Mary. He accused Flagler of bringing his mistress into the family home and passing her off as a nurse. Father and son grew so far apart they didn't see each other for almost 20 years.

Apparently, then, according to Chandler, Flagler suffered intense guilt over his fortune having been made at the cost of the death of his first wife. And the consequence of Flagler's guilt complex was his compulsion to modernize Florida, or so the theory goes.

Humbert took that to heart in writing an anthemic song central to the show. There Is a Price is Flagler's soliloquy.

"There is a price to be paid for every thought, for every word, for every decision," he sings.

"It grew out of a quotation by Flagler when somebody asked him how you achieve success," Humbert says. "He said some men achieve success at the cost of their health, other men achieve success by dedicating their lives to long hours and toiling, and others achieve success at the cost of their personal relationships. Many prices are paid. Flagler is singing about the prices he had to pay."


Flagler: Empire Builder of Florida, with book by Thomas P. Rahner and music and lyrics by Daniel W. Humbert, has five more shows. It runs Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Flagler College Auditorium in St. Augustine. Tickets are $10-$15. Call (904) 825-1164.