It's been a long, winding road to Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre for the new musical Paper Moon. But after nearly a decade in the making, its creators say they are more enthusiastic than ever about the project.
The musical is scheduled to run through Nov. 3 at Walnut Street.
"It's an incredible feel-good show," said Director Matt Casella. "It lets the audience both laugh and cry."
Casella and the creators feel the show's history parallels the journey of its heroine, an orphan named Addie Loggins, in her search for a sense of belonging. When they speak of Addie, it's as if she's real, someone they love very much.
"I've often felt like a metaphor for Addie on her journey," said Casella, who initiated this project about 10 years ago. Librettist Martin Casella, Matt's brother, said, "We're hanging in there with Addie to complete her journey." The Casellas were mere children themselves when the film Paper Moon came out in 1973. It became one of their favorites. The film was based on the 1971 novel "Addie Pray," which also has influenced the new musical, the Casella brothers said. Addie teams with con man Moses (Moze) Pray on a trip through the American South in the 1930s to deliver Addie to her relatives.
Impressions from the film remained with the Casellas through adulthood. In 1986, Matt took his idea for a new musical based on the film to a Broadway producer.
The Casellas and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh agreed the film had great potential for musical theatre. "While Addie and Moze are not necessarily characters who'd sing out about their feelings, they are the type to be introspective and sing to themselves," Matt said. "And, the character of Trixie (a flashy carnival dancer who rivals Addie for Moze's attention) was obviously more musical than the film allowed."
By 1991, the Casellas had the rights to the material and in the fall of 1993, a full-scale production of Paper Moon was mounted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, N.J. That engagement was to be followed immediately by a Broadway run. However, during the New Jersey production, it became obvious to the creative team that changes were necessary.
At first, Paper Moon was overblown, the production simply too big, admitted composer Larry Grossman. The characters were lost in a sea of huge sets and costumes. But there was no time before Broadway to make the desired changes. The Casellas and their colleagues made the difficult decision to cancel the Broadway plans. Instead, they opted to continue improving the show.
In 1995, a 55-minute version was presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in New York. The NAMT was founded in 1986 to nurture development and presentation of new musicals. Among NAMT members are Walnut Street Theatre and Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. When the condensed version of Paper Moon was presented in 1995, the audience included Bernard Havard and Michael P. Price, executive directors of the Walnut and Goodspeed respectively. They arranged a co-production to bring this new musical to life. Paper Moon recently completed an 11-week run at Goodspeed.
The creators have maintained their passion for the show through some rough periods. "It was difficult at times, realizing you've spent a huge chunk of your life on one show, but my love for the material sustained me," Grossman stated. "As a team, we've been able to repledge ourselves to the project through the years," said Fitzhugh.
The collaboration is significant not only to the original foursome, but to the "new kid on the block," choreographer John Caraffa. "They made me feel welcome and appreciated a fresh point of view," said Caraffa, who danced at the Walnut in the early 1980s with Twyla Tharp.
"The important thing is that we're doing the show we've always wanted to do," said Matt, "and that's our reward."
-- By Maria E. Sticco