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The Wonderful, Musical World of Bill Russell

by Melissa Yeaw

Provincetown and musical theater. The two go hand-in-hand. Our little spit of land attracts some of the most talented, most interesting, most prolific performers. We are definitely on the map. And luckily, that part of the map is also part of Bill Russell’s world. He’s coming to this week’s edition of Great Music on Sundays @5 at the Universalist Unitarian Meeting House with his show Celebrate! The Musical World of Bill Russell.

He’s written (or co-written) 14 full-length, produced musicals and two one-acts. He has received Tony Award nominations for Side Show and has worked with Janet Hood, Henry Kreiger (who is the composer for Dreamgirls) and countless performers, worldwide. He directs, writes (poetry, plays, songs), plays the piano, has managed comedy and pop duos, and basically stays very busy. His show Unexpected Joy premiered two years ago right here on the Outer Cape, at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, which is appropriate as the musical is set in Truro and Provincetown. It is now enjoying a run off-Broadway, and will be in London in September.

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, written by Russell with music by Janet Hood, is a show of monologues based on the Names Project Quilt, and has been produced in England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, and Australia, to name just some of the locations, and even a few times here in Provincetown. It’s Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology meets the AIDS epidemic kind of thing; each monologue and/or song reflects the lives of people who have lived with and died from AIDS. This from a review of the play performed by SNAP! Productions in March 2018, by Christine Swerczek: “There will be laughter. There will be tears. And there will be many recollections of this production in the weeks to come. For it will not leave your mind easily. ELEGIES is an epitaph for the departed and a love song that lives on.” –

Perhaps this week’s program at the UUMH will deliver similar results. Provincetown’s own Phoebe Otis will be at the show, performing a song from Elegies…, a show she has directed in Provincetown more than once. Star of his own show at the Pilgrim House this summer, Esera Tuaolo, an ex-NFL player who came out after retirement, will perform two songs, one from Side Show and another Russell wrote especially for him. Tuaolo was in Side Show in the Twin Cities when Russell directed it, and is an “incredible singer” according to Russell. Our own multi-talented Adam Berry will perform a song from Elegies…, and the cast also includes Ben Berry, Jo Brisbane, Marcy Feller, Christopher Sidoli, and Halcyone Hurst. Russell himself will perform a song from his first off-Broadway show, of which he says, “I’m not a great singer but audiences seem to like to see songwriters ruin their own material…”

Russell’s self-effacing sense of humor and kindness comes through in all his material and will emerge in this show to be sure. His own story of growing up gay in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 50s and 60s lay the groundwork for his empathy and his artistry. His paternal grandparents were cattle ranchers in Wyoming, and everybody called his father “Cowboy” because he rode in rodeos. Russell had “no interest” in his grandparents’ ranch, or the cattle, or hunting, or sports, and says he “felt like the biggest freak in the world,” which provided him with material for his award-winning musical Side Show, which tells the story of conjoined twins navigating the “freak show” circuit. The “hyper-macho environment” (Russell’s words) was no match for this effeminate boy. He was lucky; his mother was sensitive to him.

The WHAT premiere of Unexpected Joy in 2016 starred Lacretta and Sally Mayes. Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer.

She loved movies and took him to see them. She cultivated his musical talents, taking him to piano lessons and encouraging him to be in plays. And certainly Russell’s own perseverance and the fact that he was “bitten by the theater bug” at an early age contributed to his success. In second grade he wrote and directed a production of Cinderella starring all his friends, and then insisted that every teacher in the elementary school let their class see his show!

In high school he faced challenges as a gay youth, but by his twenties he was out “with a vengeance.” His first writing assignment was in college when he co-wrote a musical with Janet Hood, through the mail, a modern version of the Icarus myth titled Sun, Son, and they won the national BMI Inter-Varsity Show Competition for original musicals. He was off and running! He managed the gorgeous lesbian singing duo Jade and Sasparilla in the 70s, writing lyrics and touring New England, appearing on talk shows, and has co-written many other musicals.

Currently, Russell just finished directing a production of Oklahoma at the Black Hills Playhouse. He is staying on the Cape for a short time, then it’s off to London for the British premiere of Unexpected Joy, then back to his home in New York City to start rehearsal of a new play he is directing. In between, the album for Unexpected Joy will be released, something he is very excited about. “It’s a really fun score and not typical musical theater,” says Russell.

He is currently writing lyrics for his next play, a musical version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But meanwhile, he will let us into his world for a short time, to hear his music, learn about his process, and celebrate!

Celebrate! The Musical World of Bill Russell is part of the Great Music on Sundays @5 Series, and will be at the Universalist Unitarian Meeting House, 236 Commercial St., Provincetown, Sunday, July 29, 5p.m. Tickets ($20/ $15 for seniors 65+) are available at the door or online ahead of time at You can learn more about Bill Russell on his website,


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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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