The Great Ostrovsky, his new collaboration with librettist and co-lyricist Avery Corman, opening March 13 at Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, is sweetened by a Yiddish klezmer music sound, which has little connection to the circus chases of Barnum, the comic opera sound of On the 20th Century, the smooth, harmonic jazz of City of Angels, the R&B and pop of The Life or the vaudeville (and folk and country) of The Will Rogers Follies.
The Great Ostrovsky, in previews in Philly since March 6, is set in the 1920s Yiddish theatre community of New York's Lower East Side as commercial English language theatre is beginning to rise. The title character is a bigger-than-life actor-director (played by Bob Gunton) who runs his own Yiddish troupe.
"It's territory that I know," Coleman told Playbill On-Line. "I developed a little taste for it. I know it, from my youth, from my family. My mother and I, we would go when I was a young kid, to the Yiddish theatre. So I guess it's in the genes. It's something that I did know."
The show is in English, he said, and is a lighthearted romantic musical comedy. "It's not a Fiddler on the Roof," he said, "It's not about immigrants having a hard time fitting in here."
He explained, "It's the heyday of the Yiddish theatre. It's an amazing thing about the Yiddish theatre in that time: They had about 12 or 15 theatres and they were constantly packed. Some of them were as big as 2,000 seats. This is the story about one of these great stars — a fictional star. But he's a composite of all the stars that used to be down there. Great big stars with great big followings. When he died, Jacob Adler, they followed his coffin through the theatre district — with 50,000 people." The show, he said, "has its own little message about commerce and art." Avery Corman brought the idea to Coleman and they have been developing it for several years. The pair share lyric credit on the project.
What's the romance in the show?
"It's between this immigrant girl," he said, "and the critic who hates Ostrovsky's theatre — he thinks it's cheap, and hates that they change the classics, change the endings."
And what about klezmer music, that brassy sound that came with the immigrants from the old country?
"I do use the klezmer music, it's kind of like icing on the cake," Coleman said, "It comes in and out, but I also have a score there wedded with it. It is unlike anything I've done. When I get to do something new, or have a new approach, I'm excited as I ever was. Like it was my first chance at it."
Bob Gunton, Broadway's original Juan Peron of Evita, bit into another juicy part starting March 6 with the first performance of The Great Ostrovsky, at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater.
This is a regional testing of the waters for the new musical. Alan King was once mentioned for the title role, when the show was in previous development under the title It's Good to be Alive.
Louise Pitre (Mamma Mia!), Rachel Ulanet (Saturday Night), Paul Kandel, Jonathan Hadary (Gypsy with Tyne Daly), Nick Corley (A Christmas Carol), Daniel Marcus (Urinetown, The Fabulist), Ed Staudenmayer, Jeff Edgerton and Kirsten Wyatt share the stage with Gunton.
Performances continue to March 28.
The staging is co-directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch and co-directed by Douglas C. Wager. Designers are Zach Brown (set and costumes) and Howell Binkley (lighting). Music director is Steven L. Gross.
The Great Ostrovsky had a private reading in Philadelphia Dec. 15, 2003, at Prince Music Theater in anticipation of the March 2004 world premiere there.
Composer and co-lyricist Coleman and book writer and co-lyricist Avery Corman were in attendance for the reading.
Gunton was Tony Award-nominated for his work in Evita and the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd. His Broadway credits also include Roza, Passion, Big River, Working, King of Hearts.
Is The Great Ostrovsky a big, traditional musical comedy?
"It's not big," Prince producing artistic director Marjorie Samoff previously told Playbill On-Line. "And remember, this is the Prince: I don't know how traditional it's going to end up being. Although I love the traditional form, work here usually has a twist."
The show, with a cast of 12-14, is about a big personality from the New York Yiddish stage of the 1920s, but "it's really about the relationship of an artist to his audience and to big business. It's a period, but has some contemporary take. And it's funny — a happy ending."
In 2004, Prince Music Theater, which began as American Music Theater Festival 20 years ago, also offers a new musical version of the play, Gemini, and a production of William Bolcom's revised Casino Paradise.
At various times in its development, The Great Ostrovsky was known as Ostrovsky and It's Good to Be Alive. At one point, it was mentioned as a vehicle for comedian-actor Alan King.
"Meet David Ostrovsky, an artist of monumental talent, with self-confidence to match, who suddenly finds himself fighting for his own survival in a bustling world of aspiring artists and hustling promoters, left-wing idealists and girls who just want to be stars," reads the Prince announcement.
Known as a master melodist, composer Coleman is the Tony Award-winner who penned scores for The Will Rogers Follies, Barnum, I Love My Wife, Wildcat, On the 20th Century, Little Me and The Life. He is not known for writing lyrics for his musical projects, but did co-write the book to The Life.
For Prince Music Theater information, call (215) 569-9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org.