What's old is new at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY. This summer, the six-month-old, 594-seat venue, which was transformed from an old movie theatre, will present the world premiere and "pre-Broadway tryout" of a new musical, Topper, using a score of Cole Porter songs.
Based on the original Thorne Smith novel that inspired the classic 1937 film, subsequent sequels and TV show of the same name, Topper features an original book by Jerry (Other Peoples Money) Sterner, and runs June 20-July 6.
Topper stars Tony-winner Ron Holgate in the role of George Kirby. Holgate received the Tony for his performance as Richard Henry Lee in 1776. Other Broadway credits include The Grand Tour (Tony nomination), the original Milos Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the title character in Lend Me a Tenor.
Elizabeth Ward, on Broadway in City of Angels and Passion, will play his wife, Marion. The title role will be played by Skip Lacey, who appeared as Tom Sawyer in Broadway's Big River.
Sterner's premise honors the comic three-character ghost story, involving the spirits of recently deceased socialites George and Marion Kirby, who are visible only to the nebbishy title character who is mercilessly "haunted" by the Kirbys' outrageous attempts to improve his life. With the help of musicologist Tommy Krasker and Bob Montgomery of the Cole Porter estate, Sterner pored through 1200 of Porter's tunes, ending up with 16 artfully interpolated songs, including "Let's Misbehave," "You've Got That Thing," and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." According to Topper director, HHPAC executive producer Tony Stimac, the songs are "a combination of some well-known, and songs that people will not remember ever having heard before."
The concept for the show was initiated by successful Broadway producers Fran and Barry Weissler (Grease!, Chicago), who hired Sterner to write the book, while intending Tommy Tune to be involved and possibly play Topper. Topper was back-burnered when the Weisslers and Tune became fully involved with the ill-fated Busker Alley. Sterner then requested the rights and the Weisslers agreed to grant him ownership.
About two years ago, Sterner came in contact with Stimac, who was then the artistic director of Manhattan's Musical Theatre Works, dedicated to new musical composers and plays.
"I fell instantly head over heels in love with Jerry, the project and the whole thing." Stimac said.
The two collaborated on the show for six months, culminating in a workshop production last year at Musical Theatre Works, which ran for three weeks. According to Stimac, the workshop "showed great potential. . . but the effects of the ghosts were lost without scenery or costumes . . .it needed a full-fledged production."
To take care of that problem, Paper Mill Playhouse set desginer Michael Anania will create the ghost-friendly scenery. Tharon Musser will illluminate, and Gail Baldoni will create the costumes. The show will be choregoraphed by Mark Hoebee, a Broadway dancer and director and choregrapher for many regional theatres and national tours.
Stimac says there are still perpetual rewrites as the show gets closer to production, and as the technical team, an "extended set of collaborators" who got involved in January, provide information about what it takes to move from one scene to the next.
Stimac spent this second week of April holding audtions, saying that casting has been very strenuous due to the fact that, "This is one of the busiest times in the history of the Broadway theatre." Many of the performers sought for the production were occupied with other premieres recently opening In New York. "We sought a number of people, but I'd rather not mention the names to be fair," Stimac said. Casting should be announced by early May.
Stimac confirmed that a number of producers expressed interest and "that interest remains high. We're in discussion with a couple of them with an eye toward a Broadway production after Helen Hayes."
When asked why the run for a world premiere was so short, (two and a half weeks), Stimac blamed the limitations of producing in a new theatre. The Hayes Center opened in 1996. "That's the length of runs for the shows here in our operations. We have hopes from ticket sales that the show will be extended. At this theatre we tend to forget (because everyone has been in the theatre for a long time), that the operation is [only] six months old. The technical schedule and ground plan all is happening for the very first time. It is more time consuming. . . on every show we make one technical improvement in the [HHPAC] theatre." The executive producer is also quite honored to be in his position. He continues, "It's very exciting and a little overwhelming-- you're not just doing a show ever, you're creating an institution." The Performing Arts Center acquired 4700 subscribers in its first season.
Some may consider that Topper has been ripe material for a musical ever since its inception, since the premise already been used to create two sequel films, a television series, and a television remake starring Kate Jackson in 1979. The original film reportedly was the first black-and-white to be computer-colorized in 1985.
Other theatre-related trivia includes the fact that the Topper TV series provided the first professional job of musical master-to-be Stephen Sondheim's writing career. Also, Billie Burke, who starred in the original The Wizard of Oz as the good witch Glenda, repeatedly starred as Topper's wife in the films.
For tickets or more information about Topper, please call (914) 358-6333, or refer to the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By Blair Glaser