When Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit last visited Broadway, it starred a pre-NEA Jane Alexander. Come spring 2000, the chilling satire will get a new star -- and a new sound.
Four-time Tony-winner Angela Lansbury will star in a musical version of the play, with tunes composed by John Kander & Fred Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally. Frank Galati, the Tony-nominated director of Ragtime and Tony winning director of The Grapes of Wrath, has just been signed to direct The Visit.
According to a spokesperson in producer Barry Brown's office, Kander, Ebb, McNally and now Galati are still working on writing and shaping the musical, which has yet to be capitalized and has no stars attached apart from Lansbury. An out of town try-out is anticipated for early 2000.
Months earlier, producer Brown told Playbill On-Line (July 29) the hope was to have an internal workshop of the piece in January 1999 followed by a brief tour. Initially, the hope was to bring the show to Broadway in fall 1999, but now springtime looks much more likely. Still, Brown says, "We're proceeding on schedule." Asked if Kander & Ebb's work on Over & Over (an adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth) was slowing the process, Brown said, "Well no, that had already been pretty much written. Besides, they're definitely the kind of guys who can work on two projects at once."
Reached at a May 18 92nd Street Y Benefit for late founder Maurice Levine, Lansbury told Playbill On-Line, "I believe [my] voice will be intact. I did that musical on television, [Jerry Herman's] `Mrs. Santa Claus', which had nine songs." Due to hip replacement surgery, Lansbury walks with a cane, but she has no trouble getting around and, though `terrified' of touring, appears ready for the rigors of appearing in a new musical.
"Of course, I still have to talk with John and Fred on what they have in mind for the score, but I think Terrence McNally will get the book down very nicely. We're using a translation that's more human and has more humor. That's important, because the audience basically knows what will happen from the second scene on."
The Visit, about an elderly woman with a serious grudge against the man who done her wrong, was first played in New York by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, for whom the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is named. In this dark comedy of revenge, a former prostitute, now a millionairess, pays a macabre visit to her hometown. She tempts the poverty-stricken townspeople with cash to kill the man who ruined her when she was a girl.
Librettist McNally penned the Tony-nominated book for Ragtime and scripted the Tony-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class.
Brown told Playbill On-Line (Mar. 4), "I've bought the rights. I've wanted to do the musical for years. At the moment I'm the sole producer, though with musicals running $8 million these days, it usually doesn't stay that way."
Asked where he got the idea to turn The Visit into a musical, Brown said he first saw the Durrenmatt play in a black box theatre in Los Angeles five or six years ago. "I thought, hmmm...I wonder. But nothing will happen if I don't make it happen."
The songwriting team of Kander & Ebb were represented twice on Broadway two seasons ago with Steel Pier and a still-running revival of Chicago. A much heralded revival of their Cabaret had been doing sell-out business at Broadway's Kit Kat Klub until the recent Times Square scaffolding accident put the production on hiatus.
Best known for TV's "Murder She Wrote," Lansbury's last Broadway turn was recreating her Tony-winning performance in a 1983 revival of Mame. Before that, she won the Tony as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, though she's also legendary for making Mama Rose her own (despite Merman's legacy) in a major Broadway revival of Gypsy.
A Swiss playwright who died in 1990, Durrenmatt began his career with It Is Written in 1947. Other plays include The Physicists and Play Strindberg.
The Visit was set to music at least once previously, in an opera by Gottfried von Einem. First performed in Vienna in 1971, The Visit of the Old Lady was staged at New York City Opera in 1997.
-- By David Lefkowitz