QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION is a musical based on stories for, from and about the NAMES PROJECT AIDS memorial quilt.  The book is by Jim Morgan, Merle Hubbard and John Schak, with music by Michael Stockler and lyrics by Jim Morgan.

In 1987, the NAMES PROJECT AIDS Memorial Quilt was created. The physical quilt is described on its website as a “poignant memorial, a powerful tool for use in preventing new HIV infections, and the largest ongoing community arts project in the world.” QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION takes this art project to another level. As a theater piece, the show uses story and song to add another dimension to the emotional weight and significance of the physical quilt. Appropriately, the physical Quilt was on display at the National Mall when the first production of QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION happened at University of Maryland and The Smithsonian Institute.

QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION is mostly a collection of stories accompanied by songs that represent panels in the quilt, giving voice to the visual representations. Based on actual stories of the friends and family members of people who died of AIDS, the show seeks to tell a variety of stories and represent an array of perspectives. The piece is tied together by Wes, a gay man who is HIV positive and who has lost his partner to AIDS. As his story begins, Wes is ready to take his own life, feeling there’s nothing left to live for – and he’s going to die anyway. As the piece moves forward, Wes gains strength and hope from working on the quilt and from meeting other people who are involved in the project. Wes’ story is woven through other short narrative “panels” of the quilt. Ultimately, Wes decides to persevere despite his reasons to despair and finds comfort in the community that arises around the making of the quilt. The message is clear: the quilt’s power is derived from its presence. The quilt panels are an assertion of the existence of the disease and the people who are not only living in its wake, but fighting it, without shame or fear of judgment. QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION is, in this respect, like another panel in the NAMES PROJECT quilt.

In an attempt to help the piece reach the widest possible audience, there are several modifications for the actual script to make QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION producible for theater companies of all sizes, as well as ways to work around controversial material to make the piece workable in all communities. There are guidelines in the script regarding which songs to omit or include depending on the needs of the performance. The show features a multi-racial cast ranging in age from 12-70 years old. While the original production had 22 actors, the cast can accommodate as many as 30 actors, or can be reduced to as few as 13. The goal of this flexibility is to make the material accessible to theaters of all sizes.

While there are the sentimental and heart-wrenching moments, as one would expect for a piece with this subject matter, QUILT: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION is also full of upbeat and funny  material. While a tearjerker, the piece is certainly not depressing or despondent. Like the best shows that deal with tragedy, and the quilt itself, this musical is about living not about dying, and the score and scenes reflect that.