Shiver me timbers, it’s a pirate’s life onstage at Theatre Three in Uptown Dallas.
Now playing through May 1, Stede Bonnet: A F*cking Pirate Musical is inspired by the true story of Stede Bonnet, an 18th century Barbadian pirate. Playwright Nicole Neely was intrigued by Bonnet, often called “The Gentleman Pirate” because he was a wealthy landowner who left his family, friends, and estate behind to live the rough life of a despised criminal.
Neely first heard Bonnet’s story on a This American Life podcast called “I Am Not a Pirate.”
“They couldn’t fathom why he would have done this, why he would give everything up to go be a pirate," Neely said. "When I did some more research, I learned he lost his son at two or three years old. Then he had a couple of more children, but I don’t think he ever really recovered from that grief, and I think that took a toll on his mental health. Changing your entire life, there has to be something that sparked that, and I think it might have been him wanting to feel something.”
Intrigued by pirate who purchased his first ship rather than steal it, Neely began writing a play. She began writing this show in 2019, only a couple of months before her wedding to composer Clint Gilbert, and planned a reading for Theatre Three’s Monday Night Playwright series.
While working on scenes, she realized music would add another dimension to the story.
“There are some moments that had so much energy and so much emotion that I wanted there to be music,” Neely said.
She turned to her soon-to-be husband for help.
“I was like, ‘Clint, I have an idea for a musical. I have some scenes that I’ve written. Could you give me 12 songs in a month and a half?," Neely said. "And he said, ‘You know, this is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life.’ And so that’s how we started making it a musical."
Neely and Gilbert developed a rhythm for writing together. She would write a scene, find the moment of highest emotion, and then give Gilbert a key phrase or concept for the music.
“It was so much fun to work with him,” Neely said.
When Gilbert played the first song he wrote for the show, “If I Could Rewrite My Story,” Neely knew the music could give the story the emotional depth she wanted.
“It was one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard, and I just knew we had something really special then,” Neely said.
There is a lot of humor in the show, deriving from how naive Bonnet was.
“He has no concept on how to run a ship," Neely said. "It was just mayhem."
Through his misadventures, Bonnet crossed paths with Edward “Blackbeard” Teach.
“He also found Stede so interesting,” Neely said. “He kind of took him under his wing and he let him sail with him for so long. He, in a way, mentored him. Blackbeard, one of the most terrifying pirates in history, saw this little man and said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to be a pirate.’”
Eventually, Blackbeard allowed Stede to captain one of his old ships. The result was predictable.
“And of course, he failed! He failed!” Neely said.
Jeffrey Schmidt, Theatre Three’s Artistic Director, saw the show’s promise at the initial reading and suggested a development week to refine the story. The development week, delayed by the pandemic, happened in 2021.
“I was able to take another look at it and make it relevant to what felt like a new world we were coming back into,” Neely said.
One of the songs, “To See the Sun Again,” is particularly poignant after two years of a devastating pandemic.
“It’s about stepping out into the light, despite feeling so much weight on your shoulders, despite feeling the grief of losing what you’ve lost, just moving forward into the sun,” Neely said.
The musical is the first show back at the theater’s home in the Quadrangle, following construction due to the shopping center’s redevelopment. Even though the theater has called the Quadrangle home since 1969 and has not physically moved, Theatre Three has a new address: 2688 Laclede Street, #120, Dallas, Texas 75201. The theater will soon reveal its new lobby and its new marquee is reminiscent of the theater’s signage from its former facility on Main Street.
Despite the physical changes, the theater’s mission to foster writing talent continues.
“It’s amazing," Neely said. "I never thought it would happen like this or that it would happen so quickly. Theatre Three is one of those theatre that sees potential and sees new and up-and-coming playwrights and really goes the extra mile to give them a chance and I’m very grateful.”
Although Bonnet was a pirate for less than two years and his life of adventure ended disastrously, Neely sees rewards in taking a risk.
“I hope people come to the show and I hope that people will laugh," Neely said. "I wanted to write a show that brings people joy. If they have something they’ve wanted to do, if something was calling to them, maybe it’s worth taking a leap and not being afraid to fail.”
Learn more: https://www.theatre3dallas.com/