Honk!, the anthropomorphic musical that skunked The Lion King as Best New Musical in the 2000 Olivier Awards in London, makes its Chicago premiere Jan. 23, opening the 2002 season at Marriott Theatre in the Chicago area.
The British musical by lyricist-librettist Anthony Drewe and composer George Stiles began in suburban London and has become an international sensation in less than a decade, without the benefit of a Broadway production. There are 84 productions, professional and amateur, planned for the United State alone in 2002, Drewe, 40, told Playbill On-Line. He said he and his composer are hoping the show becomes a well-known property regionally and then plays Broadway — so the New York staging will be fed by fans who already know it.
The broad show, on a theme of acceptance and being different, is based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." Drewe directs the resident Lincolnshire, IL, production, which officially opens Jan. 30. Performances continue to March 31.
The international explosion of Honk! has been tremendous considering it began life in 1993 at a 200-seat theatre in suburban London, the Water Mill Theatre, in Newbury.
"It's a converted water mill, so it has a river running through it, effectively, and it has ducks on the lawn, and I thought, 'This is the perfect show for the Water Mill,'" Drewe explained. He wrote the libretto in three days, sold the idea to the Water Mill and showed the script to Stiles the day the composer returned from a trip. The show was a hit. Drewe kept pitching the family-friendly musical to director Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre, and although Nunn said he was a fan of it, he didn't have a slot for the musical. In 1997, Julia McKenzie staged a production of it in Scarborough, and Drewe was still pitching to Nunn. In 1999, proving that persistence is everything, Drewe got a call from the famed Nunn. A show had fallen through at the National in London. Could they stage Honk! at the National's Olivier Theatre for Christmas? Some tweaks and changes were made for the National, and that is the printed version now available (a U.S. script has some slight cultural reference changes).
The show went on to beat the Disney machine's The Lion King for Best New Musical in the Olivier Awards.
"Ordinarily I don't think it would have made the front page of the newspapers, but it was the whole story of a duck beating a lion that the British press cottoned onto," Drewe said. "And it was the first British musical staged at the National Theatre."
Why hasn't Honk! landed on Broadway?
"To open a show in the West End or Broadway, the stakes are so much higher that it can make or break a show, and if the critics decide they didn't like it, it pretty much kills the show off," Drewe said. "Whereas, to do what we're doing with it, which is more like [the path of] Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — starting it out in the provinces — it starts a whole groundswell of interest. We've turned down two Broadway offers. We don't rule it out as a possibility, we just don't want it to spoil what, at the moment, is happening and which we're rather enjoying, which is seeing all these productions around the world now — some at schools, some at community theatres and some at big professional theatres. There are dozens."
How did Drewe and composer Stiles meet? The writer started out wanting to direct, although his studies at Exeter university focused on biology and zoology. "I thought I was going to be a biology teacher," Drewe said. "Yet I am from a very musical family. My older brother, who is two years older than me, has written five or six musicals — he's a composer. When I went to university, I started directing my brother's musicals with a student company at a professional theatre, which happened to be in the middle of the university campus. It was run all-year round as a professional rep company but they would allow the Gilbert and Sullivan Society to have a week, and I formed this new company called Stage Door, just to do new musicals. And they let me have a week. In my second year at university I directed one of my brother's shows. In my third year at university I directed another of my brother's shows, and George Stiles was in the cast. I knew he was a talented composer. Literally, after the last night of that show, in 1983, I said, 'Would you like to try to write a musical?'"
The pair would also write the musical, Just So, based on Kipling's stories, produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Honk!, however, has made the loudest noise. The show is currently running in Denmark, Tel Aviv and there are three stagings planned for the Los Angeles area, plus a Japanese version and a Singapore staging. "George and I went out for the opening [in Denmark] because that's where Hans Andersen came from, so it meant a lot that we were being accepted in his home town," Drewe said.
In Chicago, Paul Slade Smith plays Ugly, the duck who doesn't look like any of the other ducklings in the nest; Paula Scrofano is Ida, his mother; and Ron Rains is Drake, the father. On his web-footed journey of self-discovery, Ugly meets Kenny Ingram as Cat, Don Forston as Bullfrog, Hollis Resnik as Queenie (a cat), Patrick Gagnon as Jaybird, Cristen Paige as Penny (a swan), Mary Robin Roth as Lowbutt (a chicken) and Neda Spears as Weathergirl. The duckling ensemble includes Dana Parker, Melissa Peterson, Ben Ratskoff and Christopher Tolbert.
Marc Robin, who staged an American "Ugly Duckling" musical, Everything's Ducky, in Skokie's Northlight Theatre in December, choreographs Honk!
Designers are Peter McKintosh (set, costumes and props), Nancy Missimi (Marriott's resident costume designer), Diane Williams (lighting) and Duncan Edwards (sound). Patti Garwood conducts the orchestra. The production's musical director is Brad Haak (who also music-directed Northlight's Ducky).
Londoners Drewe and Stiles also wrote the musicals, Tutankhamun, Peter Pan and the Cameron Mackintosh-produced Just So, as well as revues.
Tickets range $35-$40. Marriott Theatre is at 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire, IL. For reservations, call (847) 634 0200. Visit MarriottTheatre.com.
The 2002 Marriott Theatre season includes Damn Yankees, Funny Girl and Carousel. Its planned staging of a new musical, Robin Hood, has been postponed.
Marriott Theatre produces Equity musical theatre productions year round in their intimate arena theatre designed with only nine rows so "everyone has the best seat in the house," according to the website.
Marriott is the second most-subscribed theatre in the country, luring over 400,000 people to Lincolnshire each year. The theatre is housed within the 168-acre Marriott Resort complex in suburban Lincolnshire.
— By Kenneth Jones