Times have changed. These days, it’s not unusual for several years to pass between the time a new play or musical is written and the night it has its premiere on Broadway, what with numerous out-of-town tryouts, workshop upon workshop and sometimes complete changes in the creative team. Still, few titles have had the long gestation period of The Visit, the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally musical that will finally enjoy its Broadway bow April 23 at the Lyceum Theatre. (Previews begin March 26.)
Fifteen years have passed since the public first heard of the project, which is based on the dark 1956 comedy by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. In the story, millionairess Claire Zachannassian returns the town where she grew up to wreak revenge on the man who did her wrong back in her youth. In 1999, Angela Lansbury played the lead in a private reading, with Philip Bosco as Schill, the lover who betrayed her decades before.
It was soon announced that The Visit would arrive at Broadway’s Winter Garden in early 2001, with Lansbury in the lead, Frank Galati directing and a tryout in Boston. But when Lansbury withdrew because of the illness of her husband, the producers were left scrambling for a substitute; they eventually abandoned their Broadway plans. Lansbury never returned to the project.
When the musical resurfaced, it was announced as the season opener of the 2001-02 line-up at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. It had the same director, Galati, but a new star, Chita Rivera, and a new co-star, John McMartin. McMartin was in the rare position of having previously played his role in a 1973 Broadway staging of the original play.
“It was all there,” he recalled, upon first seen McNally’s libretto. “The difference between doing the two is, the play allows the audience to discover the underlying love and affection the two had for each other. When you get to the musical, you maybe get a song that expresses that more vividly. You use the same tools as an actor for both parts, in the musical and straight play.” The play opened to mixed reviews. The moment in time that it opened, October 2001, didn’t help matters. 9/11 had occurred just a month prior, shaking up the nation.
"It was generally a success, but we couldn't get anyone from New York or California to see it,” Galati said at the time. “People weren't flying." Not were producers interested in "the whole idea of moving a very dark parable about human greed, the dark side of human nature.”
“It was a wonderful and terrifying experience at the same time,” recalled McMartin. “It was a grim time. We were doing a show about greed and horror. And you come out of the theatre, and that was everyone’s life at the time, also.”
If Broadway wasn’t calling, Off-Broadway was. The Public Theater announced in late 2003 that it would offer the new musical as part of their new season, with Rivera and Frank Langella starring. But financing fell through and the staging was canceled.
Nothing more was heard from the show for a few years, until it was revealed that the Signature Theatre, in Arlington, VA, would host a new staging of the show. Lyricist Fred Ebb would not be around to see the new production. He had died in 2004.
“Actually, [the Signature production] was a development of the Chicago conception, a realization of it,” Kander explained. “In the same sense, what we’re doing now on Broadway is John Doyle’s conception, the first half of which was done in Williamstown. It’s kind of the same pattern with two different directors.”
The New York Times sent down its critic, who found that in the musical, “the macabre and the misty-eyed vie uneasily for supremacy… It’s creepy and chilling, but that slack-jawed look of horror should be a mirror for the audience’s own at the conclusion of any staging of The Visit. This softer-edged adaptation, too full of lively or elegiac musical divertissements to carve its way deeply into the psyche, is more likely to inspire mild clucks of philosophical regret.”
The Washington Post called it an “admirable if not consistently embraceable musical.” Once again, there was no immediate move to New York.
November 2011 saw a one-night, benefit performance of the musical, again with Rivera, but with John Cullum as Schill. "We certainly want more than one performance. That's what we're aiming for," Rivera told Playbill.com at the time. But it wasn’t to be.
The Visit’s third professional production came in summer 2014 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. A new director, John Doyle, was enlisted. In Doyle’s most notable move, he eliminated the intermission, making the show a one-act. “It was a very good idea,” said Kander. “The piece has a kind of sweep from beginning to end right now. I think this is tighter. I’m not a big intermission fan anyway. But then I’m a Wagnerian, so I can sit in my seat a long time.”
The fifth Schill the show has known is Roger Rees. “We were sitting having a conversation about who we should ask,” recalled Kander of the casting. “I can’t remember who said it first, but Roger’s name came up very strongly. I remember thinking it was a really nifty idea. And it’s proven to be so.” Graciele Daniele was the new choreographer; Ann Reinking had worked on all past Visits. In previous versions, Rivera had a big number where she dances with all her slave-like attendants. “A version” of that piece remained, said Kander. Daniele, however, added a “new dance section for Chita near the end of the piece, which is gorgeous. She dances with her younger self.”
The design of the show is also quite different from the Galati version. Otherwise, however, “it’s substantially the same piece, but much, much tighter,” said Kander. No songs have been cut or added. “Every time you approach working on a piece that you’ve written, you change it and keep on changing it. This is a sort of natural evolution of the piece, it seems to me.”
“This elegiac production’s commercial potential is iffy, but the plot’s morality conundrum is surefire — a musical ‘What Would You Do?’ — and theater faithful will certainly want to revisit, if only to see Rivera in a juicy starring role,” said Variety in its review. “Despite the weakness of some of his material, Rees gives a powerful and complex performance as Anton goes from village loser to potential hero, before meeting his fate with fear, resignation and grace. The cast of strong singers is first-rate in roles that are more archetypical and symbolic than substantial.”
Soon after the Williamstown production closed, it was announced that The Visit would finally visit Broadway, with Rivera and Rees starring. Rivera, Kander and McNally have been the only constants in the show’s long, winding journey. Reminded of that, Kander laughed, “Well, that’s depressing.” Still, Kander never lost faith the show would get to Broadway.
“It was way too important to see Chita at the peak of her skill in the city,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that wouldn’t happen. It’s everything she knows about the theatre poured into one performance. Watching Chita stand still is just a blessing. When she’s standing still on that stage, you can’t take your eyes off her. I don’t know how you do that.”