It's Monday, Nov. 5, the first day of the writers strike, and Adrian Pasdar has time for lunch. With production for his NBC series "Heroes" shutting down behind picket lines and rehearsals for his new musical "Atlanta" off for the day, the actor and neophyte stage director is suddenly, temporarily, at liberty. He has not been at liberty for months, and it feels good.
"The strike could not have happened at a better time," he says, seated at a window table at M Cafe de Chaya on Melrose. Pasdar says this not in celebration but in relief, as a man with a family holding down two high-pressure (albeit well-paying) jobs and telling himself every day that things are going to work out, some way, somehow. He has grown close to the cast and crew of "Heroes," but he is also trying to direct the world premiere of a Civil War musical he's co-written (with Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon; it opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse). An athletic and energetic man of 42, Pasdar nevertheless would be within the bounds of reason to say, "Do not try this at home -- or in Hollywood."
He does not say this, but under the circumstances he did enlist Geffen artistic director Randall Arney to co-direct the show. Still, he wants to be there as much as possible. "Because I wrote it," Pasdar says at lunch. "There's some subtlety and nuance to the characters. Though it's very simple and very straightforward -- which is what I appreciate in theater -- it can be interpreted in different ways, and would prefer that it be interpreted my way."
The "Atlanta" cast of seven is headed by Broadway veterans Ken Barnett ("Wonderful Town"), who plays a Yankee soldier passing for a rebel behind enemy lines, and Merle Dandridge ("Tarzan," "Rent"), cast as a slave and thespian serving to entertain a Shakespeare-loving Confederate colonel played by former NEA-non-approved performance artist John Fleck. Fellow "Heroes" ensemble member Leonard Roberts plays another member of the colonel's traveling slave troupe.
Pasdar, who grew up in Philadelphia, the son of an Iranian-born heart surgeon and a nurse, got the idea for "Atlanta" seven years ago, based on the notion of a soldier finding a love letter inside the coat of an enemy he has killed and becoming obsessed with the object of his enemy's affection. He happened to mention this at a dinner party in Texas attended by Hummon, who had written songs for the Dixie Chicks -- whose lead singer is Natalie Maines, Pasdar's wife.
"I think Marcus and I were in the kitchen, washing dishes," Pasdar says, "and when I told that story, Marcus said he thought he might want to do something with that."
Hummon, a top-drawer songwriter whose credits include "Bless the Broken Road" for Rascal Flatts and "Only Love" for Wynonna Judd, as well as "Ready to Run" and "Cowboy Take Me Away" for the Dixie Chicks, was already interested in theater and had workshopped two musicals in Nashville and New York.
A student of the Civil War, Hummon started composing songs to go with the story, blending elements of bluegrass, gospel, blues and folk music to match the region and the period, setting the fictional events at the real battle of Peachtree Creek outside Atlanta near the end of the war.
"He's a storyteller," Pasdar says of Hummon. "He came up with the idea of a play within a play. And the music kind of flowed out of that."
After Hummon mounted a small production of "Atlanta" on his own in Nashville, he came to Los Angeles two years ago to work with Pasdar on revising and improving it. "He immediately made some great changes," Hummon says later.
Pasdar says he was not familiar with the attempts by pop composers Randy Newman and Paul Simon to create successful stage musicals and was not an aficionado of musical theater in general. "But I loved 'The Lion King.' I remember crying at 'The Circle of Life.' I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to deliver something like that with a linear narrative that's more play-based, not musical-based? And how would you do that?' "
Until "Heroes" came along, Pasdar and Maines lived on a ranch in Texas, where Maines and the other two Dixie Chicks, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, grew up and first performed. When Pasdar was a regular on the PAX television series "Mysterious Ways," which filmed in Vancouver, he commuted every weekend back to Austin.
"We're here now," he says, "because the children are in school, and Natalie is recording here as well, and 'Heroes' is here. I'd rather take a pragmatic approach to living than the aesthetic approach of living in Texas. It just wasn't very cost-effective."
Pasdar is inclined to modesty about his own acting talent, and when praising Dandridge of the "Atlanta" cast, he characteristically does so at his own expense. "She's a star. She's got that thing, that thing that I don't have, God-given, like my wife."
Shaping the vision