Dear World is one of those problematic musicals remembered as having a dazzling score but being a frustrating experience to watch, and directors have been trying to solve it ever since its brief Broadway run in 1968.
The investigation of the material — the score is by Jerry Herman, the book by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee — continues June 27-Aug. 17 in Utah, where the Sundance Theatre is staging a revised version at its outdoor Eccles Stage. David "Tommy" Thompson (Steel Pier) has penned a further revision of his 2000 "new version" of the libretto and Sundance Theatre artistic director Philip Himberg stages the Utah production (opening July 6 after previews).The public Eccles Stage shows are separate from the Sundance Lab that focuses on developing new works in private workshops not open to the public.
Herman, of course, is the composer-lyricist known for the international blockbusters Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles.
In this Dear World, Maureen McGovern stars as Countess Aurelia, the touched Parisian who fights the forces of capitalistic injustice in postwar Paris. The show is a musical version of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, written during the Nazi occupation of France as a speculation on life after liberation. Thompson's script had a previous reading by Roundabout Theatre Company with Chita Rivera, and was staged in 2000 by Goodspeed Musicals at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
"It seems to be agreed upon that this very delicate French play, a comedy-drama-fairy tale, had been grafted onto a big, old, Broadway musical formula," Himberg said of the original Broadway production. "It had a huge cast and a lot of ballet and dance. Somehow the source material didn't match the treatment of the '68 production. Even though Angela Lansbury won a Tony and was wonderful, somehow everything around her was too big and too heavy and maybe too obvious and too hard hitting. It's kind of like a souffle, this play. It's easy to open the oven too early. I think what David [Thompson] attempted to do with Jerry at Goodpseed and [an earlier] reading of it at the Roundabout was to try to find a way to make the book more near the feel of the Giraudoux play. I think it's now much, much, much different that what you'd read in the Tams Witmark [licensed] version." The score has been reshuffled, and some new or previously cut songs are in place for Sundance. "A Sensible Woman," about how the "madwoman" feels life should be led opens the show (as it did at Goodspeed's Norma Terris, a version that starred Sally Ann Howes). "One Person," cut at Goodspeed, is back in, ending Act One. The title song is sung by the three madwomen, as a kind of lullaby that leads to "One Person." A song called "Through the Bottom of the Glass" does not appear in the show, and "Rugged to be Rich" has been rewritten as "Have a Little Pity on the Rich." The score also includes the famed number, "I Don't Want to Know," plus the delicious counterpoint trio for the women, as well as the romantic "Kiss Her Now" and "Tomorrow Morning" (all beloved staples from the cast album).
"I feel like we've made some exquisite moments happen," Himberg told Playbill On-Line by phone from Utah. "Jerry and Tommy have given us a lot of leeway to do that."
Solving the show is not easy, and finding a way to make the title song was no picnic, however. "Jerry even wanted to cut 'Dear World' at one point," Himberg explained. "He called me and said, 'Oh, let's just cut the song and change the name of the show to Tomorrow Morning. I said, 'No, no, no — we'll figure it out.' Jerry's been great. I think I could probably have asked him to do more stuff. I just decided that my job was to make this play work."
Soprano Maureen McGovern, a veteran of pop tunes, Broadway musicals and cherished studio recordings of Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake, will bring, arguably, the most trained, precise and soaring voice yet to the show.
"When we went to Jerry's house to go over the score, Maureen began to sing," Himberg said. "He was at the piano and she was singing 'A Sensible Woman,' and he just stopped. Jerry's like a kid. He stood up and his eyes welled up with tears and he said, 'I've waited 40 years to hear this score sung like that.' Nothing against Angela, she's gorgeous and her voice is beautiful, but when Maureen McGovern wraps herself around these melodies it's a whole other reality."
From his home in California, Herman told Playbill On-Line: "It was so thrilling to hear a voice like that sing those songs. You can imagine what they sounded like. It was just glorious. They're doing new orchestrations. It's still gonna be small, it's not gonna be the huge thing that opened on Broadway, which was very out of shape."
The show was always viewed as having a glorious score and a troubled book and production.
"It's hard for me to say things like that because I love my collaborators," Herman said. "But it's true: If a book doesn't really support what I do, then what I do can go down the drain with the whole thing, you know? That's why Dolly, Mame and La Cage are so well grounded. The books of those three musicals could stand by themselves without me. That's why those shows will go on forever."
Herman said he is excited about the summer and 2003. His short-lived Mack & Mabel is expected to get a major U.S. revival in 2003. "It's kind of a nice time for me because I'm gonna be able to see two of my favorite works, which were failures, come back and hopefully have new lives," he said. "You don't have a lot of second chances in show business."
The Utah cast also includes Joan Barber as Constance, Max Robinson as the Sewer Man, Alexis Baigue, Britani Bateman, Eric Bjarnson, Jason Celaya, Aaron DeJesus, Diana Dunkley, Michael J. Eger, Ary Kian, Dee Macaluso, Jim Pitts as the Prospector, Rock White, Jennifer Way Zemp and Bijan A. Zaimi.
Ryan Murphy is musical director. Designers are Neil Patel (set), James Scott (costume), David Lander (lighting), Bart Schaerrer (sound) and Jennifer Llewelyn (hair/makeup). Musical staging by Peter Anastos. Orchestrations are by Christopher Jahnke.
Actress-singer Maureen McGovern last appeared at Sundance Theatre in 1999 as Mme. Emery in Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Her recording include "The Morning After." Jerry Herman performed at Sundance last season in Hello, Jerry: A Musical Salute to Jerry Herman. He turns 70 July 10.
Dear World will play the Sundance Institute's outdoor Eccles Stage at Sundance Village beginning June 27. For ticket information, call (801) 907-4050. The Sundance Theatre is a not-for-profit arts organization founded by Robert Redford; for more information go to sundance.org.
— By Kenneth Jones