Behind the Scenes: Birds in Cages

Gary Gimmestad, composer and arranger for the Scarlet Sisters Everleigh, has agreed to write a behind the scenes blog.  We are thrilled to have Gary share his insists on the creation of the new work.  Scarlet Sisters Everleigh opens November 8 at the Berger Park Coach House Theater. —– by Gary Gimmestad

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   

but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou (1983)

As Jason and I began doing research on the Everleigh Club, it quickly became apparent that there were many, many stories to tell. Chicago’s Levee district in the first decade of the twentieth century is a touchstone, a window onto its recent past – the Civli War and the migration north – and to the near future – the next phase of Chicago’s gangland history. It was a colorful and extravagant time, indeed, but we decided to to narrow our focus to explore that world through the curious and sketchy history of the two sisters who became very successful madams – Everleigh? Lester? Simms? – and after a decade of spectacular success, retired to a materially comfortable but socially awkward life in New York City.

Eighty-three years prior to the publication of Maya Angelou’s most celebrated poem, “Caged Bird,” Harry Von Tilzer and Arthur J. Lamb released a smash-hit sentimental ballad called “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

The sheet music proclaims it to be “The Most Beautiful Ballad Ever Written.” Harry and Arthur were on to something with this tune and they continued in the same vein with another hit called “Mansion of Aching Hearts.” A genre was established. The successful theme centered on a woman who opted for a security which, in reality, was a prison. This was the era of Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” a novel which traced the life of a young woman looking for opportunity in booming Chicago and finding that, initially, her best options were to accept the largesse of wealthy, self-interested men.

In the first few chapters of “Sister Carrie,” it’s clear that the heroine could have easily ended up in the Levee as a prostitute, perhaps even a “butterfly” at the Everleigh Club (which Dreiser frequented).

Without marriage or inheritance, options for women were severely limited. The gilded cage symbolized women’s plight in pre-suffrage America.It’s uncomfortably akin to “good plantations” whose owners expected gratitude form slaves for the relative comfort of their captivity.

On one hand, the Everleigh sisters offered an attractive option to the Sister Carries who found so little opportunity. But, on the other, the Everleigh Club (not unlike the glamorous theater life that Sister Carrie found to be lacking despite its material comforts) was also a gilded cage – not only for the “butterflies” but for the Everleigh sisters as well.

I don’t know if Maya Angelou was riffing on Tilzer & Lamb’s tune when she wrote “Caged Bird” but surely her poem would resonate in the gaslight of the Chicago’s Levee district. I made an odd discovery this evening when I decided, on a whim, to check out Maya Angelou’s poem again. It’s written in the same meter as a harlot’s epitaph which I set to music for the show:

I’ve been a bad girl all my life,
I’ve drunk my share of booze.
But you’ve got to give me credit boys,
I never wore white shoes.

I plugged in Angelou’s words and it worked surprisingly well!

Pearl, I know, would love Angelou’s poem.

About Gary Gimmestad

Easter with Gary & JohnGary Gimmestad, a native Minnesotan, was delighted to reconnect with one-time Minnesotans Jason and Rob and Three Cat Productions to compose and record music for the fall production of Joint Attention.  Gary has a long history in theater and music including several projects with Three Cat’s own Rob Dorn. Rob and Gary collaborated on Rob’s solo CD, I’m Wishing and on the dozens of arrangements they co-created for the vocal group Three Hits and a Miss. Gary has also performed and toured as pianist and music director for a number of shows including Ain’t Misbehavin’, 1940s Radio Hour, Little Shop of Horrors, Forever Plaid and many others. Gary recently launched his own business (Dal segno Music Services, LLC) which offers music preparation services as well as instruction in Finale music notation software. Gary is currently working with singer / songwriter Tom Lieberman ( on his children’s theater project featuring a ukulele puppet named Luke the Uke and his sidekicks Amanda Lynn and Duke. And Gary is eagerly looking forward to future collaborations with Three Cat!