In 1925, Katherine McHale Slaughterback was riding her horse in Northern Colorado with her young son in tow when they came across a rattlesnake migration. (Yes, they do that. Yes, it’s a terrible sight.)
A two-hour battle royale ensued. The snakes lost. A legend was born, then burnished. Even her surname has the tang of myth. It snags the imagination. But her post-slaughter moniker does even more so: Rattlesnake Kate.
When Neyla Pekarek, a singer-songwriter and now composer and lyricist of the new musical “Rattlesnake Kate,” first came across the story, she was a kid. At least that’s her recollection. Slaughterback’s archive of letters, photos, even the dress she made of the snakes’ skins are housed at the Greeley Museum of History where Pekarek had gone on a class field trip.
“It was such a unique story, this rattlesnake attack. So strange,” Pekarek recalls. “It also was strange to me that nobody had heard this story, that even people from Greeley were like ‘What?’ She’s not really a household name. There was something about it that stuck with me.” She even dressed up for Halloween as Kate. And over the years, she became the tale’s raconteur.
“I felt like it became my party trick. When there was a lull in the conversation, I’d say, ‘Want to hear something weird?’ and tell the story.”
Greeley Museums manager Sarah Saxe agrees about the tug of the tale. “She’s a story that just captures so many people’s imaginations,” she said on a recent phone call. “I think we have visitors who have never heard about Rattlesnake Kate. But once they start reading her story and view the dress and the other artifacts we have on display, people just can’t stop thinking about her. She’s such an interesting woman, whom I think just kind of represents strong independence, strong will, sort of a role model for certain people.” Count Pekarek among them.
In 2019, the former singer and cellist in the indie-rock band the Lumineers released “Rattlesnake,” a solo album celebrating the restlessness and boldness, the pining and independence of Slaughterback. An “American Songwriter” reviewer described it as an “audacious, somewhat cheeky album featuring Pekarek’s trilling, powerful voice and songs that shift from ’60s “Grease”-styled ditties to more histrionic moments, all seemingly made for the stage.” The stage, indeed.
“It was kind of my pipe dream to write a musical,” said Pekarek, who had attended Colorado’s hotbed of musical theater, the University of Northern Colorado. She also counts Overland High School performing arts teacher Darin Drown (now at Grandview) for her “theater geek” traits; he cast her as Cosette in “Les Miserables.” “Yeah, I love musicals, and I just thought I have none of the tools or skills to write one. But I do know how to write and record a record.” She started there. “I just immersed myself in this woman’s history. And I was thinking about her 24/7, and she just became my muse.”
That same year, during the Denver Center’s 14th Colorado New Play Summit — which brings the nation’s independent theater-makers to town to watch workshopped readings of fresh plays — industry types gathered in the Seawell Ballroom for an early iteration of the musical with its vivid songs and not-yet-filled-out story. On stage was Pekarek with her cello. The performance was electric and tantalizing, twangy and playful.
Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Chris Coleman committed to bringing it back fully formed as a world premiere in early 2021. It was, after all, the first original musical commissioned by the Denver Center. And then there was no theater season, no world premieres. Zip. The musical was one of the nine theater company shows canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, “Rattlesnake Kate” will at last have its world premiere, with Coleman directing. Playwright Karen Hartman wrote the book. She was brought on in 2018 by the Denver Center’s then literary manager, Douglas Langworthy (who died in 2020), to nurture the narrative side of the musical. “The pull of the album most exciting me was this contemporary, urgent need to revisit the tale of this Colorado ancestor in order to bring strength to a woman today,” Hartman remembers. In many ways, that woman was Pekarek herself.
Coming into her own
When Pekarek traveled with the Grammy-nominated Lumineers, it wasn’t unusual for her to go seemingly unseen by venue promoters and sometimes unheard in the rehearsal room. “I had never been in a band before — I was a drama kid — and I had never been so aware of being a woman during that time. And it was certainly magnified by being an all-male band,” she says.
“There’s a difference between sitting in a room with women. You just get listened to a little bit better. What a shocking headline,” she says with a kind smile and avid eyes. “I had to fight so hard for my voice to be heard in that band for a really long time. And even if it’s unintentional, sometimes I wonder if it’s like a scientific thing, like the timbre of my voice, you literally can’t hear it.”
She wrote “Rattlesnake” after leaving the group, and she believes it was cathartic. “I wrote these songs based on this woman’s life, but I think they were sort of a way to write about my own baggage as well. I got to make a record exactly the way I wanted to make it,” she said in an interview before that New Play Summit performance.
Completing the album and having it out in the world made it easier for her to reimagine what it might look like as an honest-to-goodness musical with all the storytelling and emotional beats that required, all the letting go. At the time she felt that she “had full creative control, a great producer, and now I can kind of hand these songs off and not be precious about them.” And since the New Play Summit performance, she’s written new songs. Every musical needs an “I want” song. “Rattlesnake Kate” now has one.
“The one thing I love about theater is how collaborative it is. I think being in a band sometimes is less than that. Often one person is dictating how sounds are going to be,” she says. “In theater, it’s so many brains coming together — which can’t be a bad thing. I think having a big, diverse group of people is ideal, but it is so awesome to have a lot of women in the room for this.”
The allure of myth
It’s not incidental that the three women instrumental in bringing this Western story to stage hail from the West — and that their Wests have their own textures. Pekarek grew up in Aurora, where her parents still live. Hartman was raised in San Diego; she now lives in Brooklyn. Dramaturg Heidi Schmidt, who is also a dramaturg at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, moved to Colorado from Utah.
Each knows that the West is, in ways, glorious and miserable, a place of myth and fact. “Rattlesnake Kate” retains the allure of myth. It also contains the grit of truths, of dirt, of high prairie and hard work. And hankerings, too. For the record, Slaughterback was married six times, but maintained an epistolary romance for more than 40 years.
“When you’re dealing with a person who actually existed, there’s some responsibility for that,” Schmidt said. “But there’s also a challenge in navigating the historical record to begin with. Even if we set out to tell a hundred percent accurate show, that’s never really possible. I think Kate was someone who was very interested in crafting her legends to a certain extent. And so that’s really a theme that, I think, ties into this question of the mythological West versus the actual West and how Kate was positioning herself. How she wanted to be portrayed in the press had a very specific focus. And the way she portrayed herself in her letters had a particular goal and a focus.”
For 10 weeks of Saturdays, Schmidt would drive to the Greeley Museum to read through the material and transcribe the letters that Kate wrote to and received from a fellow known as The Colonel.
It wasn’t just Kate’s romantic and maternal life that had to be fleshed out. The musical also had to have a life beyond the farm. Hartman admits nerding out on the region’s sugar beet history. “I bring a kind of amateur obsession with agribusiness and food production, economics and land use issues around farming,” she said on a recent call. A significant character owns a beet farm that’s more a nascent agribusiness than a family homestead.
“There was this huge interest in domestic sugar production at the time,” Hartman said. In the wake of the Spanish-American War, sugar cane costs skyrocketed. “Suddenly the Colorado industry became this cash crop for creating sugar. There were not enslaved people here, but there was a multi-ethnic force of migrant labor similar to how California, Texas, other parts of the West run today. That was the workforce in this very brutal sugar beet industry. And that seemed like such an interesting contrast to Kate’s approach to the land because she was always farming by herself or with her son or with maybe a couple of seasonal workers.” As a playwright, she asked herself: How does that open up questions about the American dream? How does it put a spin on her love of the land? How does it relate to the indigenous people? (A land acknowledgment has been written into the musical’s first song.)
A creative “pardnership”
In the nearly four years since they were introduced, Pekarek and Hartman have developed a warm collaboration that speaks to their being women of a different generation, with different temperaments. Perhaps surprisingly, the rocker is the quiet one, the writer outspoken. It’s an observation that each mentioned sweetly in separate interviews.
“I relate to a story of that kind of misfit woman and just biographically so much of the show has become about Kate’s relationship with her son. And I’m the mom of a boy who’s now 14,” says Hartman.
Their divergences are among the reasons “Rattlesnake Kate” features three different periods with three actors portraying Slaughterback: to get the sweep and shifts of character that come with growth but also challenges. “Kate is both this extraordinary person and a woman who lived a long life and faced that struggles that women and human beings still face,” Hartman said. “There are certain parts of her journey that Neyla connects to more and certain parts of her journey that I connect to more. In our partnership, I think we’ve gotten a fuller portrait of a whole life.”
The snakes aren’t the half of it.
Come Friday evening (the show is in previews), we will see Katie the headstrong teen; Kate the taxidermist, the farmer, the killer of rattlers and self-marketing busineswoman; and Katherine, a hard-working farmer and loving mother beset with the challenges that come with those roles.
“I think there are so many stories about the men of the West,” says Pekarek. Yet, often when she would tell people about Kate, they’d invariably go, “Oh, like Annie Oakley.” Well, no, she’d think to herself. “ ’Annie Get Your Gun’ was the first musical I was ever in. I think she was remarkable, too, but she’s a different person with a different skill set who lived at a different time period.” But the question got her thinking a lot about how many other Western women’s stories go untold. “This is just one,” she says of the musical. “I think it’s a big part of our history, of Colorado, that this person existed. And it just felt important to me to tell that story and through it, tell my own story as a Western woman.”
What had once inspired a Halloween costume or a diverting party riff has grown into a full-blown work — yes, of imagination but also deep research — a musical that engages the myth but also the woman. Pekarek and Hartman hope it has the feel of a campfire tale, but one that has a strong woman of the West as its hero. Cowboys be durned.
“Rattlesnake Kate” may be less a gunslinging saga of how the West was won than an example of how the West will be sung.
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