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“Incredible Wonder and Magic”: Distant Thunder Rolling Toward Broadway

Native musical 'Distant Thunder' has its sites set on Broadway.

Stage and screen actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Blackfeet, has a resume filled with stage successes. His credits include being in the original cast of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights and landing the role of Frankie Valli with the national tour of Jersey Boys. Yet, there is one important musical theater production he has yet to see on Broadway—a show that centers on contemporary Native American life and the importance of Native languages. By co-writing Distant Thunder, Taylor-Corbett hopes to accomplish exactly that.

“While the whole story [of Distant Thunder] is about preserving the Piikani language—the Blackfeet language—it’s really a personal story as well about a son going back to reconcile a relationship with his father after his mother passes,” Taylor-Corbett said.

Shaun Taylor Corbett

With Distant Thunder, Taylor-Corbett wants to bring an audience “into a world of incredible wonder and magic,” he said, “and realize that Native Americans are contemporary people just like anybody else. We’re not mascots, and we’re not historical figures that have been lost in time. We’re real people with an incredible culture to offer the world.”

Taylor-Corbett draws much of his source material from his own life, along with the collaboration that includes his mother, Broadway choreographer and director Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and Chris Wiseman. Ultimately, the inspiration comes from Taylor-Corbett’s own childhood search for his father’s family among the Blackfeet people of Montana.

“When I was 15, I was going through some family things,” Taylor-Corbett said. “I was an angry kid. I had a rough childhood and a broken family. My mom thought it was time for me to discover who I was.”

Shaun and Lynne Taylor-Corbett

His mother helped make the connections so that Shaun could learn about his Blackfeet heritage. It wasn’t long before Taylor-Corbett said he got to know the Little Plume and Kipp families, who instilled in him a love and respect for Blackfeet ways. One of his favorite times to visit is in the summer during North American Indian Days in Browning, Montana. From watching the annual pow wow’s dancers, one of his favorite lyrics for Distant Thunder finds life--—“Time stand still/I’m dancing in the powwow/heart’s so full/flying high above the ground.”

“I love that aspect of it,” Taylor-Corbett said about powwow dancing, “and you just feel the centuries of culture passed down—almost unspoken. It’s just there, and you soak it up when you’re there.”

The journey to bring Distant Thunder to Broadway has—and continues to take—multiple avenues. The musical was workshopped for three days in December 2012 with New York’s Amas Musical Theater.

Fun in the studio - Courtesy Photo

“The audience just loved it,” Taylor-Corbett said about the 2012 workshop. “It was really beautiful. We had a mix of Native people in the audience, and non-Native people. Everything that was humorous about Native culture came out. People identified with that.”

While Taylor-Corbett said there are talks to do a two-week workshop again with Amas, multiple avenues are opening for the show. One of these routes includes regional theater in Los Angeles, where Taylor-Corbett resides and is a member of the theater group Native Voices. "Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz are the artistic directors of Native Voices. They have been tremendously supportive in our process of getting our show produced."

"We had our first workshop for Distant Thunder at Native Voices at the Autry in 2012 in their Playwright's Retreat and Festival of New Plays," said Taylor-Corbett. "We also had a 2-week workshop with a 3-day performance with Amas in 2013, where we focused on development of the songs."

Another approach is to bring Distant Thunder to Indian Country, where Taylor-Corbett is working with Chickasaw Nation for tentative performances in Ada, Oklahoma in June 2016.

“I would love for the Native community to feel like they see themselves up on that stage, and they’re very proud of it,” Taylor-Corbett said. “That they connect with the humor, with the struggles, with the elders and the youth that they see on the stage, that they really point to that and say, ‘Yes, that’s us up there. That’s really representing us well.’”

In the studio: Marisa Quinn, April Ortiz, Desiree' Davar and Christine LaDuca

While Distant Thunder still seeks its Broadway premiere, Taylor-Corbett is trying to tell the story on the silver screen as well. Currently, Taylor-Corbett said a movie adaptation of the musical is in the second round of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. There have also been more recent recordings of the songs with at least 12 artists that include not only Taylor-Corbett but also Cheyenne artist Joseph FireCrow and Marisa Quinn from Twilight Saga.

“We would love to shoot big,” Taylor-Corbett said about getting Distant Thunder to its Broadway destination. “However long it takes, whatever the steps necessary to get there. We want to be the first contemporary Native American musical on Broadway. We really want to go all out.”