Fur trappers — their boots caked with mud, pieces of cooked rabbit dangling from their scraggly beards — don't seem like prime candidates for breaking into song. But sing they will in Downriver!!, the new musical about 19th-century explorer and fur trader David Thompson to be performed at four local sites from July 10-25.

It will have taken nine years, a script overhaul (three months before opening), a change of directors (just two weeks ago), 24 singers, 52 costumes, 18 contributing Pend Oreille County organizations and four northeastern Washington venues to put on the world premiere of Downriver!! The David Thompson Musical.

It's all because of Jack Nisbet and Martha Nichols. Nisbet — who literally wrote the book on the man, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America (Sasquatch Books, 1994) — delivered a lecture on Thompson in Newport, Wash., the year after his book came out; Nichols was in the audience. But why a musical, Martha? "Because David Thompson was bigger than life," says the show's producer. "Because a musical is more celebratory, because no one thought I could do it. I was the one who heard Jack speak and was so excited and enthralled with the story of Thompson that I said, 'We have to have a David Thompson musical!' That's the only reason.'"

But Thompson's life was also eventful enough to fill out a dramatic plot. In 1784, when he was just 14, he left Wales for the icy tundra of Hudson's Bay. He learned to chart latitude and longitude using a watch and sextant — so obsessively that the American Indians he encountered called him "the Starlooker." For the next 27 years, "he traveled throughout western Canada and the northwestern United States, encouraging the Native Americans to trap beaver in exchange for trade goods like metal axes from England and glass beads from Italy."

As an explorer, he covered 55,000 miles (and not on the interstate highways). He was the first non-Native to document his travels in what is now Pend Oreille County (where he spent much of his time in 1809-11). He was the first outsider to describe the Kalispel Tribe, the first to map the Pend Oreille River. And that's just what he did in this neck of the woods.

Thompson was married to Charlotte Small, the child of a Cree woman and a Scottish fur trapper, for 53 years. By the time he left the fur trade in 1812 and retired to Ontario, they had had 13 children. One of the concluding songs in DownRiver!!, "What Do the Stars Say?" has David recounting his adventures in celestial navigation to Charlotte and their many grandchildren, just before he died in 1857 at the age of 82.

The script development for DownRiver!! — you know it's full of energy, because it boasts not one but two exclamation marks!! — was almost as arduous as the man's entire life.

"I had three weeks to write an entire two-act musical," says Spokane playwright Kimberly Hinton. "I was told that the composer was finished writing music and that I had to use the songs composed for the other script. When I began writing, I had no idea who David Thompson was. All those challenges taken into consideration — well, there is a show."

Tara Leininger, theater director for the Selkirk school district and artistic director at the Cutter Theater in Metaline Falls, has taken over as director after a resignation.

The best thing about DownRiver!!, according to Leininger, is that "David Thompson is getting brought into the public consciousness. I grew up in northwestern Montana, in Kalispel, and I had barely heard of him. But this is a man who really did have an impact on this part of the country, and DownRiver!! celebrates his life and his sense of adventure."

But what in the musical would startle the painstaking historian in Nisbet? "Certainly it's episodic," says the director. "We've telescoped certain characters into others, but I think Jack would understand the need to do that, and he'll like the flow of it.

"Where I have a problem, though — and we conferred with members of the Kalispel tribe on this, but — well, to be blunt, we've got white people playing Native Americans. And of course we don't mean to offend. But authentic costuming was just way beyond our means. We tried to make the costumes as accurate as we could, but ... one person took me aside and said, 'Face it, you've got people in cheap wigs and cloth.' It's just a delicate issue, let's say that. But we're doing this with tribal support and understanding."

It's not as if Thompson himself were without flaws. "Whenever [Charlotte] was pregnant with one of their 13 children, he always left around the time that the child was due — this was historically true," says musical director Donivan Johnson (who is Leininger's husband).

"No matter where they were, life for him was always out the door," adds Leininger. "There's a song late in the show — their 5-year-old son is sick — where the wife sings, "What has he done? He's traded our child for lines on a map."

Hinton, the writer, says she regrets having two of her favorite scenes cut out of the show, but she also notes that "David Thompson lived the kind of life that could fill an entire day of theater with interesting scenes."

Leininger adds that, "Historically, he's boring — I mean, his journals are real sleepers. But what he accomplished was amazing." She wants to fashion an exciting play so that the public will get excited about what Thompson did, too.

Citing her theater work at Selkirk and the Cutter, Leininger remarks that "music and the arts are really important to us up here. This play really does bring together an entire county."

Publication date: 07/08/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.