Creating Nelly Don the Musical
“A fashion icon, an infamous crime, forbidden love, stitched in time.”
By Jill Draper
The premiere production of “Nelly Don the Musical” runs March 14-31 at MTH Theater Crown Center. It recounts the story of the famous Kansas City clothes designer who not only led a rags-to-riches life, but had an affair with a famous senator, a secret child out of wedlock, and a kidnapping.
The Telegraph spoke to playwright and executive producer Terence O’Malley, who lives in south Kansas City where he works as an attorney specializing in estate planning.
Who was Nelly Don?
Nell ran the world’s largest dress manufacturing company of the 20th century. She really shattered a bunch of glass ceilings. She was my great-great-aunt, but because she was just two years older than my grandmother, they grew up like sisters. My brothers and cousins worked in the Nelly Don plant here, and my family is imbued with her story.
What’s the play about?
The story concentrates on Nell as a little girl to when she marries Sen. James A. Reed, from about 1906 to 1936. She left the small town of Parsons, Kansas, and learned how to sew. She was basically credited with inventing the house dress, and at its peak, her company produced 7,000 dresses a day. Her life story resonates because it has so many archetypal themes: entrepreneurism, personal travails, politics, romance, fashion, glamour and gangsters. This is not folklore—it’s all well documented in the media of the era.
Tell us about the costumes.
It’s a costumer’s dream—the fashions are a character of the story. They go from the dropped waist of the 1920s to the disco era of the 1970s. We have a fashion show that starts the play and a fashion show that ends the play.
Why a musical?
I spent three to four years making a documentary about Nelly Don, and people told me, “Wow, that’s a really great film, now write a book.” So I did a companion book. The film opened on Mother’s Day in 2006 at the Screenland and ran until Dec. 31. It’s also run on KCTV and at film festivals. I was looking for an organic way to bring the story to more and more people, and I thought, why not tell it through the wonderful medium of music.
What’s your background?
Like any number of people I did theater in high school and college, where I earned a B.A. in English and an M.S. in radio, TV and film. I’ve been a TV reporter, anchorman and press secretary to the governor of Alaska and the House of Representatives in Alaska. I have a law degree from Washburn University. Being a lawyer helps me immensely in being a writer, with the elevated language and Latin phrases we use.
Nelly Don is credited with inventing the house dress. Her designs continued into the 1970s.
You also play piano?
I’m what you would call a saloon piano player. I play blues, honky-tonk, swing, boogie-woogie. But I’m not a composer, and I knew I needed people around me who are professionals. Fortunately I collaborated with a fellow named Daniel Allen Doss. He’s very well known in music circles and has been with New Theatre, Starlight, Kauffman and many venues in between.
What are the songs like?
There are about 22 full-blown, stand-alone songs. There are some wonderful ballads and a showstopper song in the second act, a beautiful duet between Nell and James called “I Choose You.”
There was a one-night reading of the play in July 2017. What’s changed since then?
We wanted to see what worked and what didn’t work. We decided not to use a narrator, and we really toned down the sad, sad elements behind Nell’s first marriage to Paul Donnelly. We allude to the problems they had, but we basically leave it at that.
What are your hopes for the production?
I hope people will leave the theater crying with joy, and with great feelings of warmth and empathy and respect and awe. I hope the play will be produced again and again throughout Kansas and Missouri. I hope that high schools and colleges and community theaters and dinner theaters and professional theaters will pick it up. It has great roles for both men and women, and it celebrates fashion. There’s also a “Driving Miss Daisy” element to it. Her chauffeur, who was black, showed such bravery and stoicism during their kidnapping that Nell promised to employ him for the rest of her life if they got out of it.
What’s been the greatest challenge?
Nell lived to be 102 years old. After her second marriage, she continued to live a fascinating life. She made service uniforms and G.I. underwear during World War II, she was named Woman of the Year in 1977 by the National Federation of Republican Women, she made a Maypo cereal commercial with her chauffeur and she donated over 700 acres of land for a wildlife area. The hardest thing was deciding what to leave out.
Tickets are $35 to $45 with group discounts available. See nellydon.com or call the box office at 816-221-6987. MTH Theater is located at 2450 Grand Blvd., Suite 301.