Brent Wagner, the respected chair of the University of Michigan's musical theatre program — and teacher to future Broadway stars Perry Ojeda, Gavin Creel, Hunter Foster, David Burtka, Jennifer Laura Thompson and others — stages Luck! Dec. 4-7. The Isaac Bashevis Singer-based show has been seen in reading form, but never in a full production; at U-M, a cast of more than 20 tackles a fairy tale that was written for an economical-to-produce cast of nine.
Lyricist-librettist Waldrop and composer Ross will see the show Dec. 5 and take part in student Q&A sessions.
Luck!, which has touches of fantasia in it, will play the Trueblood Theatre on the U-M campus in Ann Arbor. For U-M musical theatre students, it's a chance to bite into new work; for the authors, the process has prompted them to refine, rewrite and address storytelling issues in rehearsal (Ross was on campus briefly, working with students and musical director Kevin Bylsma; Waldrop had phone meetings with director Wagner). The final product will teach the writers more about their project that an airless industry reading might, Ross told Playbill On Line.
"This will be a good step in the history of Luck!, letting the writers see it on its feet," Wagner previously said.
* Wagner characterized the production as a fully-staged workshop of the show with sets, lighting and costumes, open to the public.
How did U-M find Luck!?
Ross (Off-Broadway's Little by Little) attended a past U-M senior showcase and kept in touch with Wagner, sending him the script and score of the musical.
"I was just delighted by what I read and heard," Wagner said. "We have in our season a small workshop production — we try to do a new work, or an experimental work or an unusual work — and this seems like a good piece for that slot in our schedule."
Among the shows previously produced in the slot were a reworked version of William Bolcom's Casino Paradise, plus Maury Yeston's Nine, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along.
Luck! is by lyricist-librettist Mark Waldrop (When Pigs Fly, Whoop Dee-Doo) and composer Brad Ross (Little by Little and the upcoming musical, Beau Jest).
Previously called Mazel & Shlimazel, the musical comedy draws on the story, "The Milk of a Lioness," and is a kind of fairy tale in which the spirits of good luck and bad luck wager that each will triumph in the life of "a woebegone young man, bereft of hope and down on his luck," composer Ross previously told Playbill On-Line. Director Wagner said the show delights in the storytelling process, in the same way Once On This Island or The Lion King does, and that attracted him to the show.
Ross, whose Little by Little was presented in 1998-99 by the York Theatre Company (and subsequently recorded), told Playbill On-Line that the short story sang to him when he first read it. "This thing captivated me from the get-go," he said. He brought the idea to Waldrop.
"It's a children's story," Waldrop previously told Playbill On-Line. "I thought it had really interesting characters, or the seeds of interesting characters, and I thought it was a world that was a little different than any other."
Is it a fairy tale?
"It's a folk-tale world, which is a little cruder, a little rougher," said Waldrop. "It's about luck — Good Luck and Bad Luck, and they are personified in the story as charming, humorous characters. They make a bet with each other to prove who is more powerful."
Ross said, "The lesson is ultimately about making your own luck." He added that the Bad Luck character, Shlimazel, has some "awfully entertaining numbers."
A princess, a castle and rising fortunes are part of the script, meant for seven principals and an ensemble.
Waldrop directed Bette Midler's 1999-2000 concert show and will stage the world premiere of Adventures in Love at the Ordway in Minneapolis.
The folky Isaac Bashevis Singer story had previously intrigued Sheldon Harnick and Burton Lane, who once held the stage musical rights to the story.
"Some of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories are very Jewish," Waldrop noted. "This is not so specifically Jewish, it's more 'folk tale.' We're trying to honor Singer, but keep it very universal."
How do you get a full-length show out of a lean short story?
"In some musical adaptations, the challenge is that you have to reduce a complex novel down to a length that can be musicalized," said Waldrop. "With this, it's the opposite: We're taking a slim little story and we're adding secondary characters and subplots and enough new material to round it out to a full evening of theatre."
The popular U-M musical theatre program has, in the past, produced lesser-known or untested works, including the Sheldon Harnick projects, A Wonderful Life and Dragons, in the 1980s.
New work is vital to the program, Wagner said, because student needs to bite into works that are not part of the pop culture fabric.
"In schools, you don't often have the opportunity to do brand new shows," Wagner said. "And yet when I talk to our graduates, and they're doing workshops and readings all the time. It's so important to have a chance to create something that has no cast album, no blackmarket video, no movie. That surely should be a mandate for training programs."
Wagner said his students (the program numbers more than 80) will face careers that include revivals and new work.
"Part of the mission is to have the kids know the heritage of the field, to study Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin, and to be aware of what it's like to work on new projects, too," Wagner explained. "They need to learn the ability to assimilate material quickly."
Wagner came to U-M in fall 1984 to start the program, which had only 15 students at the time. It is now viewed as the most high-profile and popular producing venture in the School of Music, the umbrella school over the theatre progam at U-M.
Among productions that got the department noticed was the first-ever revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill's Love Life, a precursor to concept musicals. A Wonderful Life, with music by Joe Raposo and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, premiered at U-M, and Harnick's Dragons was revised and produced there, with Harnick (the masterful lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me) interacting with the students for both productions.
Among shows produced on the mainstage are a mix of recent and classic titles: Parade, Side Show, The Music Man, Cabaret, West Side Story and 42nd Street, sometimes with original company members overseeing elements of the show.
Among the department's high-profile graduates are Danny Gurwin (New York City Opera's A Little Night Music), Gavin Creel (a Tony Award nominee for Thoroughly Modern Millie), Erin Dilly (Martin Guerre and South Pacific on tour, Babes in Arms for Encores!), David Burtka (The Play About the Baby and currently Tulsa in Broadway's Gypsy), Perry Ojeda (Broadway's On the Town), Gilles Chiasson (Broadway's The Civil War, Rent and La Boheme), Ian Knauer (Broadway's By Jeeves), Barrett Foa (Off-Broadway's Godspell and Cupid and Psyche), Lisa Datz (Broadway's The Full Monty), Hunter Foster (of Broadway's Grease!, Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Summer of 42), Jennifer Laura Thompson (Urinetown, Little Fish), Daniel Reichard (Off-Broadway's The Thing About Men), Jeff Marx (co-songwriter of Avenue Q), Urinetown producer Matthew Rego and New York casting director Rachel Hoffman. They all earned BFA's in musical theatre at U-M.
For information about the U-M School of Music, visit www.music.umich.edu. For information about the U-M musical theatre department, visit http://www.music.umich.edu/departments/mustheatre/index.lasso.
Tickets to Luck! are limited, but are $8 for general admission and can be ordered through the League ticket office at (734) 764-2538.