Producers and other interested theatre folk have booked tickets to the world premiere, which began previews at PPT — a theatre committed to new work as well as area premieres and classics — April 19. The run continues to May 20.
At PPT's O'Reilly Theater, The Glorious Ones plunges into the world of commedia dell'arte and the theatre of the Italian Renaissance. Based on the novel by Francine Prose, it's about theatre people — their love for each other, and their commitment to the tradition of going on.
Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island, Annie Get Your Gun, Dessa Rose) directs and choreographs the seven-actor musical, which has music by Pittsbrugh native Flaherty and book and lyrics by Ahrens.
In The Glorious Ones, Natalie Belcon (Avenue Q) plays Columbina, John Kassir plays Dottore, David Patrick Kelly (Festen) plays Pantalone, Jenny Powers (Little Women) plays Isabella Andreini, Paul Schoeffler (Sweet Charity) plays Flaminio Scala, Julyana Soelistyo (a 1998 Tony nominee for Golden Child) plays Armanda Ragusa, and Jeremy Webb (Off-Broadway's Tabletop and The Baltimore Waltz) plays Francesco Andreini.
Of the 17th-century Italian-set show, Flaherty told Playbill.com, "It is both of a time and timeless in its themes. The struggles the characters go through are the same struggles every actor and writer I know goes through today. That's what attracted me thematically." Does the time and place prompt Flaherty to flirt with different musical flavors?
Flaherty said, "The score is highly romantic and lyrical, reaching for the stars, and at the same time (since the show is about street theatre) very earthy and bawdy. It has extreme romanticism and extremely rude humor side by side. And it's very Italian. It is probably my most 'European' score and the orchestrations by Michael Starobin are stunning."
Ahrens told Playbill.com, "Stephen has an uncanny knack for taking a particular period or place's 'sound' and making it theatrical and accessible and 'his.' He's done it on all our shows, which are all set in different times and places and very diverse in that regard."
What have the writers learned in previews?
"That Pittsburgh audiences really listen and that every word and gesture counts," Flaherty said. "We've learned a lot about proportion as well. We've also found that the piece is really getting audiences laughing although it is also incredibly moving, sometimes simultaneously."
The idea of actors' art being ephemeral is central to the story, reflecting the passing nature of human life. Did that speak to the writers?
"Absolutely," Flaherty said. "As much as I try and hang onto our opening night I know it will be just a memory the next day. And it will really be a special evening since it is the first time I've ever premiered a new work in my hometown of Pittsburgh. The whole neighborhood will be there! So I intend to really try and be in the moment, to savor it."
Ahrens added, "When my father passed away, it fell to me to dispose of a great deal of his work — a lifetime of photographs, some of which were professional masterpieces, but many of which were unsalvageable. It was like getting rid of a part of him that he'd left behind. The themes of this show resonate with anyone who's tried to hold onto the past or who's wanted to leave something of worth behind or who has simply wanted to be remembered when they go. It's not just actors, it's all of us. I'm only just realizing what it means to me — it comes from a very personal place."
How did the writers discover the novel?
"A friend of mine, Margaret Pine — a wonderful composer who's married to the actor Larry Pine — introduced me to the novel," Ahrens said. "It seemed to me, when I read it, that there were unbelievable moments for songs — both offstage and on — to illuminate the lives and hearts of these 'creatures of the stage.'"
What attracted Ahrens to it? "Masks, codpieces, slapsticks, sex, dirty jokes, pure silliness — who wouldn't be attracted to that sort of comic theatrical world?," she said. "And I was really ready to write a comedy again. And although the story is set in the early 1600s, it spirals forward in a non-linear way to a place that makes it completely contemporary — wait and see."
Is it a "book" musical, or largely sung?
"I would say the music and lyrics drive the show," Flaherty said. "There is almost a constant flow of music."
Ahrens explained, "As Peter Stone used to say, book is structure, so I guess everything is a book musical in that sense. This show does have spoken scenes, but for the most part it's a series of self-contained songs, flowing one after another, leading us through the story and into the hearts, minds and machinations of the characters."
What else have the writers discovered in previews in Pittsburgh?
"The show is an abundant feast of language, poetry, accent, music and physicality," Ahrens said. "We discovered that the sound design was crucial in allowing the audience to settle in and enter the story, because at the start, there's a lot to absorb. They need to get every word, and they do. They're totally with it. In fact, they're rapt — it's thrilling."
The collaborators have found a comfortable family at Pittsburgh Public Theater. "This has been quite a homecoming for me, living and working in Pittsburgh again," Flaherty said. "Ted Pappas and everyone at PPT have been so loving and supportive of our work here. And they party a lot! Right now I am looking across the street at the Heinz Hall stage door from my office window at the Pittsburgh Public and remembering myself as a 17-year-old apprentice at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. That was my first real job in the theatre. The fact that I am now premiering this new musical, which is about having an undying passion for theatre, in my hometown where I first dreamed of having a life in the theatre is astonishing."
Ahrens added, "PPT has given us a beautiful and extravagant production, a three-week New York workshop (which is something they'd never done before — a huge investment for them) and they've trusted us every step of the way. I'm so happy to have had the chance to develop the show in this way. As Graciela would say, we've done the right thing for 'the baby.'"
Ahrens and Flaherty's songs have transported audiences to a 1950s TV studio, an island in the Antilles, the Civil War South, ragtime-era Manhattan and the streets of Dublin. With their new show, they take us right to the heart of theatre history. The writers won the Best Score Tony Award for Ragtime and also penned songs for Dessa Rose (set in the Old South), A Man of No Importance (set in Dublin), My Favorite Year (set in the world of TV comedy) and Once on This Island (set on an island billed as "the jewel of the Antilles"), as well as Lucky Stiff (set in England and Monte Carlo).
The Public's producing artistic director, Ted Pappas, said of The Glorious Ones, "It's funny, sexy and exciting. It's a paean to artists and, essentially, a backstage musical. It’s about actors—their art, egos, romances and adventures. It takes place in 17th-century Italy. But honestly, have actors changed all that much in 400 years?"
The creative team also includes Thomas Murray (musical director), Daniel S. Ostling (scenic designer), Mara Blumenfeld (costume designer), Stephen Strawbridge (lighting designer), Michael Starobin (orchestrator), Zach Moore (sound designer), Stanczyk Cherpakov (casting), Nevin Hedley (production stage manager), Fredric H. Orner (assistant stage manager) and Madeleine Kelly (assistant to the director/choreographer).
For tickets and further information, call (412) 316-1600, or visit www.ppt.org or the Public's box office at the O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue.
Pittsburgh Public Theater has been an incubator of new works for many years: the world premieres of August Wilson's Jitney and King Hedley II, which are produced all over the world; Mark Hampton and Barbara J. Zitwer's Paper Doll (starring Marlo Thomas and F. Murray Abraham), which went on to regional theatres like the Long Wharf; the American premiere of Frank McGuinness' The Bird Sanctuary (starring Elizabeth Franz and Hayley Mills) which went on to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and this year's The Secret Letters of Jackie and Marilyn, which is under consideration by a number of regional theatres.