Critics Give Two Paws Up for Bark! The Musical
By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
“Bark! The Musical”—a runaway hit that began in Los Angeles two years ago—is making its way across the country faster than a greyhound on the loose. An original musical by composer, musical director and executive producer David Troy Francis ’73, the Los Angeles Times calls it “a musical homage to dogs and their endearingly human hearts.”
Set in a doggy day care, the show features a cast of five humans who do all the doggy things we know and love while singing and dancing to numbers that are as joyful as they are poignant. “Cats” it’s not—obviously. Nor is it “A Chorus Line,” though Francis drew inspiration from that show and “Bark’s!” original director/choreographer, Kay Cole, was in the original Broadway production. Ken Roht, the current director/choreographer, is producing artistic director of the renowned Orphean Circus, an innovative music/dance theater ensemble in Los Angeles.
“Bark!” had its world premiere in 2004. Scheduled to run for only 12 weeks at the Coast Theater in West Hollywood, it closed two years later with “two paws up” reviews from a wide array of critics. Francis and Cole were nominated for best musical score and best choreography for the 2004 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. It was the third longest-running show in Los Angeles history. It also enjoyed a seven-month run in Chicago, where it had also been slated to run just 12 weeks. Audiences in Palm Springs, CA, were treated to recent Thanksgiving weekend performances.
Now playing in Portland, OR, “Bark!” will be at Theatre Memphis in April. Also this year, it will play off-Broadway in New York, Key West, even Brazil—in Portuguese. Francis says he and his writers are fine-tuning the show for its off-Broadway audience, and that Memphis theatergoers will see the New York version. The staging and costumes for these shows “will be more contemporary, magical and excellent,” says Francis.
The Memphis show will be a true homecoming for Francis, whose first experience in theater was playing the boy in “The Drunkard” at Little Theatre, the predecessor of Theatre Memphis. He also played ragtime on the piano during scene changes.
A classical pianist, Francis is known for championing American music by living American composers. He is particularly proud of having recorded the world premiere of Pulitzer Prizewinning composer Ned Rorem’s “Eight Études for Piano.”
With the versatility of a cum laude Rhodes graduate who majored in piano, Francis has also composed music for film and television, accompanied singers from opera to gospel and played keyboard in rock bands. The late Prof. Charles Mosby ’51 “was a model on how to conduct one’s life with integrity and gracious warmth,” he says. Francis was headed to The Juilliard School in New York after graduation. That summer, his younger brother and a friend were killed by a drunk driver. Heartbroken, he stayed in Memphis and cofounded a performing arts group. In 1980, he headed to Los Angeles, where he’s worked as a musician ever since.
Francis got the idea for “Bark!” when a friend at ABC television asked him to write some songs for a documentary about dogs.
“I wrote four songs to their lyrics,” says Francis. “I loved them so much that I took them to someone else and asked if he thought I could turn the idea into a musical. He said, ‘Yes,’ so we went from there.”
Francis enlisted several lyricists, and the show was born. He was now in business—literally. He had to form a corporation and pay workers’ compensation, and he needed a lawyer. His friends in the business recommended only one—Chandler Warren.
“I had been Chandler’s client for more than a year when I told him one day that I was going to play a concert in Memphis,” Francis recalls. ‘Why are you going to Memphis?’ Chandler asked. I said, ‘I’m from there.’ Chandler said, ‘I went to Rhodes.’ I said, ‘So did I!’”
Indeed, Warren graduated in 1954, a Phi Beta Kappa political science major who earned his law degree at Columbia University. A theater, film and television industry attorney, he fell in love with show business at Stunt Night during his college days. In addition to practicing law, Warren is a writer, producer and lyricist. He is also a teacher, patiently guiding clients through the business of show business.
“I asked Chandler if he would join ‘Bark!’ as a producer and give our inexperienced team the benefit of his insight and wisdom,” says Francis.
Warren’s dog, Morgan, is the show’s logo, gracing the theater poster and CD cover.
The show touches every emotion.
“I wanted it to be joyful because that’s what my dogs bring me—joy and love,” says Francis. “I felt that if we could make the audience feel one 1/100th of the joy and love our animals bring us each day, it would be successful.”
In addition to critical acclaim, “Bark!” has received “two paws up” from the Humane Society of the United States.
“It’s the first time the organization ever endorsed a commercial entity. We presented the show to them before we opened, allowing them to see every word that was in it,” Francis says.
Neither success nor hard work has spoiled David Francis. He’s working on two more musicals, one of which he hopes to “have up” in Los Angeles by September. The only regret he may have is that he misses performing.
“Before ‘Bark!’ I used to play 80 concerts a year. Last year, I played only three—I have no time to prepare,” he says. “With this show, I work about 18 hours a day, almost seven days a week. I’ve worked hard all my life, but never as long or as hard as I have on this show.”
He loves every minute of it, though, singing the songs of his beloved cast of canines at the drop of a hat.
“Most of my work—performing classical music or this music—is about perception,” Francis says. “Even though our show is about the dogs’ point of view, you look around at people and wonder what experiences they’ve had in their lives. ‘Bark!’ is sung by dogs, but it’s about any sentient being, and it’s about your perspective. I want to show what happens to dogs and humans and how they’re treated. We are what we have lived. My work is what I have lived.”