If an 18-century French comedy by Pierre Marivaux seems like unlikely material for a Broadway musical, think of other classic plays that have been musicalized with great success. Where would the American musical be, for example, without West Side Story, The Boys from Syracuse or Kiss Me, Kate, and where would those shows be without Shakespeare?
Triumph of Love now in previews and opening at the Royale Theatre on Oct. 23 with a book by James Magruder, music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead is merely the latest in a long line of old plays made new again by replacing monologues and madrigals with show-stopping songs, and courtly minuets with modern-day choreography.
Though Triumph's life started more than 200 years ago, its latest incarnation was inspired by a 1994 Off-Broadway production of Marivaux's play, directed by Michael Mayer, who took some liberties: He added a song by Cole Porter, "What Is This Thing Called Love?" "That planted a seed," says Mayer, who directs the new, musical version. "The juxtaposition of this 1732 etude on love and a classic piece of Tin Pan Alley worked." According to Mayer, Porter's lyric summed up the entire Marivaux oeuvre. " 'What is this thing called love?' is what Marivaux asks in all his plays,' " he says.
Enter producer Margo Lion (producing this venture with Metropolitan Entertainment and Jujamcyn Theaters) of Jelly's Last Jam and Angels in America fame, who saw Mayer's production at the Classic Stage Company and was hooked. "It was wonderfully contemporary, playful and intelligent," she says, "and I thought it would be really adaptable." "Margo was obsessed with the CSC production," recalls Mayer, "and she sensed a great potential for the story to reach a wider audience."
Seated side by side on a plane to Chicago for the final callbacks for the national tour of Angels in America -- which Mayer directed -- Lion and Mayer started talking about Triumph's possibilities. Composer Jeffrey Stock had already suggested an operatic adaptation, but Mayer saw it as musical comedy. By the time they landed at O'Hare Airport, Lion did too.
According to Mayer, he and the writers used Marivaux's text (which book writer Jim Magruder had adapted for the critically acclaimed CSC production) as a map by which they found the places where songs would fit. "The 'numbers' in the Marivaux play are quicksilver, intricate dialectics about love," Mayer says. "We've taken those moments and turned them into songs." Magruder jokes that Marivaux is "turning on a rotisserie spit," but audiences at Yale Rep and Baltimore's Center Stage where Triumph the musical was produced last year laughed and cheered nightly, giving new life to a somewhat obscure play. "Everyone had a great time," says Birkenhead, "men, women, old people, kids, suburban people."
Susan Egan, who stars as Princess Leonide, agrees, and she's no stranger to mainstream audiences: Egan was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Belle in Beauty and the Beast and can be heard in the animated film Hercules. "I longed to be a character that initiates the action, rather than reacts to it," says Egan, "but be careful what you wish for."
Egan is referring to the sheer size of her role, which requires her to portray a headstrong princess bent on getting her man, even if it entails seducing his aunt (Betty Buckley) in the guise of a man, and seducing her intended's uncle (F. Murray Abraham) as a breathy sex kitten a la Marilyn Monroe. "This character is Belle, the Beast and Gaston rolled into one," says Egan, glad to be breaking out of the ingenue mold. "I like that Leonide is not necessarily right, she's just focused. She's a 'nineties gal. In fact, Marivaux's play wasn't well received in the eighteenth century because women didn't do such things."
In this production, those things include breaking two of Broadway's favorite hearts Buckley's and Abraham's. Abraham plays Hermocrates, a Spartan philosopher who believes that the mind should rule the heart. His spinsterish sister, Hesione (Buckley) agrees, and if this austere, repressed woman seems a far cry from the passionate divas Buckley is famous for, wait until Act II. "Hesione is trying to hold sway over her emotions," says Buckley, "but when the Princess comes along, Hesione runs rampant with desire." Buckley admits that Hesione's misguided emphasis on reason over romance is a theme she relates to. "I was a charter subscriber to MS. Magazine," she says. "I thought that women who lost their way because of a heartfelt desire for some dude were off track, and here I am playing out those themes." For Abraham, Triumph is first and foremost a good time. "It's a delight, a treat, first-rate fun," he says, and Buckley agrees. "I love to make people laugh," she says. If Abraham's singing and Buckley's clowning are not the first things you associate with them, Lion says that's part of Triumph's charm. "There's a lot of pioneering being done here," she says.
Actually, Abraham who admits that, despite his Oscar, his heart remains on the stage made an early New York appearance in another oldie-turned-goodie: The Fantasticks. Like Triumph, The Fantasticks is based on a classical French play, Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand. In fact, Triumph evokes The Fantasticks in its size (seven actors) and fairy-tale theatricality, and the Triumph team is hoping that they'll be blessed with a semblance of The Fantasticks' amazing longevity. Susan Egan, who learned about long runs in Beauty, says long live Triumph. "Broadway has room for different kinds of musicals," she says. "I was lucky to be involved in a spectacle with 47 pyro cues. Now I'm on the flip side, and I believe there's an audience for witty dialogue."
-- By Dick Scanlan