“My first love is theater,” says Jon Richardson, a Provincetown musician known for his piano bar gigs at Tin Pan Alley and the Crown & Anchor. Or, perhaps, you may have seen him perform with Peter Donnelly as a folk duo. He has produced albums of his own songs and with other musicians as well — Richardson loves collaborating.
Now he’s working on a musical, which has become an all-consuming labor of love. It’s called Jack of Hearts, and it’s set in a Provincetown gay nightclub in 1963, years before Stonewall got LGBTQ pride in the public eye. He’s been brainstorming the story with Provincetown Theater artistic director David Drake. And after three years of writing songs, Richardson will be letting the public in on the process with a free performance of a “song cycle” on Saturday night.
The 34-year-old Richardson grew up with a passion for playing music and acting onstage. He was born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, but his family, he says, was not particularly musical. He got interested in theater during an after-school program and soon discovered his affinity for musical instruments — trumpet and piano, and, he says, to impress “a cute guy in college,” the guitar.
“There’s a huge theater industry in the Twin Cities,” Richardson adds. “It’s an awesome place. I performed in, like, 12 professional shows before high school.” Academically, however, he started pursuing another passion: history. “I ended up at Grinnell College and studied history and Mandarin Chinese. I was taking very advanced Spanish classes. I’m convinced that music and languages are in the same part of my brain.”
After college, he was hired as an associate by an executive search firm in Boston, but, five years later, couldn’t resist the creative itch. He enrolled at New England Conservatory of Music and got a master’s in music history. Richardson says history meshes with all his interests, including what it means to be gay.
“I came out super early,” he says, “in high school, before there was widespread acceptance of gay people. My family was not thrilled — it took them a while to jump on board.”
At Grinnell, things were different. “My college was absurdly accepting,” Richardson says. “When I moved to Boston, I wanted to be in the South End. I like being surrounded by people who are like me.” Which led him to Provincetown. “Living in Boston, I came here as much as I could,” he adds. He washed ashore permanently because of piano bar jobs.
That was in 2017. Richardson started working on Jack of Hearts in 2018, inspired by his piano bar experiences. “It took me three years before I had eight or nine songs I believed in,” he says of the musical. “The pop songs I wrote for my albums each took a few weeks. With these, I’d wrestle with the idea for a song for a year and a half.”
He provided a brief synopsis of Jack of Hearts with the proviso that it’s still a work-in-progress. The story takes place over one night at the Provincetown club that gives the musical its title. The stars there are Queena Marina and Bill Summers, who perform The Happy Homosexual, a bawdy operetta they wrote about a young man looking for true love. This show-within-the-show has become a local sensation, drawing members of the Cape Cod Council on Decency to see it, and threatening the club’s liquor license. Warned of this, Queena and Bill twist the lyrics around to appease the moralists and amuse club-goers.
There are traces of La Cage aux Folles and The Ritz in the premise, but the details come right out of Richardson’s research into Provincetown history and the indelible characters he has met here. He hopes to celebrate the charm and tenacity of gay life — even making fun of queens’ self-hatred at the time.
“This is not a presentation of history,” says Richardson. That said, he hopes to offer a through-line from the past, adding, “Stonewall was born out of a 25-year-long, difficult battle for rights. The musical is an affirming look at our community.” Forget the melodrama of The Boys in the Band and its famous line, “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” The vice squad in Jack of Hearts, for example, “isn’t scary,” Richardson says. “It’s more Keystone Kops. It’s plausible that people at the club would be having fun that night.”
He first discussed his ambitions for the musical with Drake a couple of years ago at Liz’s Café. “We talked for hours,” Richardson says. “We met again six months later and six months after that. In September, we started meeting every week for three hours at a time. We’ll hash out a specific character or scene. It’s the most invaluable guidance.”
Drake is not his only mentor. “There’s so much talent in this town!” Richardson says. Take Tony Straiges, the Tony-winning scenic designer of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. “He lives here full-time,” says Richardson, who is a Sondheim devotee. “He started doing designs for the show and introduced me to his agent.”
The songs to be sampled on Saturday “trend toward a parody of the songs of yesteryear — torch songs, common to everyone at the club,” Richardson says. He’s excited to finally unveil “these things I had been keeping secret for so long. It’s so close to my heart — a love letter to this town. I often think of my songs in their development as babies. You finally say goodbye to them, and they’re standing on their own.”
You Don’t Know Jack
The event: A live performance of songs from an upcoming musical by Jon Richardson
The time: Saturday, March 19 at 7 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St.
The cost: Free, but reservations required at provincetowntheater.org