The setting of a TV soap opera studio, rife with big egos, big divas and bigger-than-life conflict, seems perfect territory on which belters can plant their two feet and sing a bring-down-the-house aria.
"People have come to me over the years trying to get the rights, or to write the libretto," Harling told Playbill.com. "Finally, I said wait a minute, I want to try to do the book of this!"
And so he is. As previously reported, the Steel Magnolias playwright is writing a libretto, and Urinetown composer Mark Hollmann is penning music and lyrics.
"We're having a great time," Harling said. "We're actually whizzing very far along. We work every day. This is a new experience for me, to be serving the composer and bringing him work to be sacrificed up to lyrics, but I love it."
How did Harling approach the material? Did he rewrite the screenplay as a play for the stage? "When I originally wrote 'Soapdish' it was kind of written in the form of play because that's all I knew — it was the second thing I wrote," he said. "It, like Steel Magnolias, is a very hermetically sealed environment — a soap studio — with everybody functioning within that crazy environment. Because it's all about over the top divas with larger than life emotions it seems to be lending itself very well to the musical format."
Sally Field played the frazzled soap queen in the picture, which had a screenplay by Harling and Andrew Bergman, with original story credit going to Harling. Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Shue, Teri Hatcher, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Cathy Moriarty, Kathy Najimy and Robert Downey Jr. also starred.
Does Harling see the musical as a big star vehicle?
"We will need one of the biggest musical comedy stars to play the central role," Harling said.
How did the idea for the musical version come about?
"As with the current incarnation of Steel Magnolias, the right producers with the right ideas and the right director came to me," Harling said, adding that Laurence Mark (Big), Peter Schneider (Aida) and Clear Channel Entertainment are attached as producers.
Of his veteran producers, Harling said, "I always have knowledgeable people that I can ask questions of — so I'm not totally floundering."
Harling kept mum about the project's director for the moment, but confirmed a director is indeed attached.
"We're hoping to have a working draft by the first of June," Harling said. "People are ready, if it is worthy, to take it to the next [step] — a reading or workshop or whatever."