On the Brink

Special Features   On the Brink
 
A Tale of Two Cities and [title of show] confirm what In the Heights and Glory Days proved last season: First-timers can make it to Broadway.
Jill Santoriello
Jill Santoriello

*

The just-ended 2007-08 Broadway season inspired many "Year of" headlines: "The Year of the Play," "The Year of the Musical Revival," "The Year of the Sound Designer" (this being the first time they were Tony Award-eligible). Yet one category that received minimal coverage was "The Year of the Newcomer." Sandwiched between the legendary shows of Styne, Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein, last season's new musicals In the Heights and Glory Days were linked by one fascinating fact: they were written by people who had never composed a full-length, professional musical before. Ever.

The composers of In the Heights and Glory Days weren't entirely alone in this respect: Stew, John Bucchino, David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger also found themselves in the Broadway newcomer's spotlight with Passing Strange, A Catered Affair, and Cry-Baby. However, their shows didn't quite demonstrate the extreme highs and lows that mounting a new musical on Broadway can bring; the payoff that can either exceed expectations or inspire speedy closing notices.

This summer, the opening months of the 2008-09 season, Broadway continues to welcome newcomers: A Tale of Two Cities, an adaptation that sold out its regional run in Sarasota, FL, and [title of show], an Off-Broadway charmer and YouTube marketing gem.

* The 2008 Best Musical Tony Award-winner, In the Heights, began when Lin-Manuel Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. A fiery ode to the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, Miranda's Latin-inspired music and bilingual, hip-hop/rap lyrics are a fresh contrast to traditional musical-theatre fare. After a college production, new collaborators and several years of development followed. The show, now with a book by Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and direction by Thomas Kail (both Tony nominees for their chores), moved from workshops and readings to a 2007 Off-Broadway run before opening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in March. It garnered 13 Tony nominations in the spring, more than any other show last season. This included two nods for the 28-year-old Miranda: Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Usnavi, the Dominican convenience-store owner yearning to return to the country of his ancestors. On Tony night, In the Heights took home four awards: Best Score, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations, and Best Musical.

While In the Heights may have been a critically lauded audience favorite, Glory Days suffered the opposite fate. To commemorate that hazy time between being a kid and venturing into adulthood, childhood buddies Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner wrote the 90-minute musical about high school friends who reunite one year after graduation. Blaemire and Gardiner first shared the pop-based songs and a basic story sketch with director Eric Schaeffer when they attended his master class three years ago at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. After working with the pair during the next two years, Schaeffer, also the artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, offered them a world-premiere slot in the theatre company's 2007-08 season.

Glory Days received mostly favorable reviews (including a very encouraging notice in The Washington Post) during its early 2008 run. Practically a month after closing in Virginia, it was announced that the show would bow at Broadway's Circle in the Square on May 6. With less than two months to prepare before previews, the show's young creators and equally young cast found themselves thrust into the unforgiving Broadway spotlight. Critics were not kind, advance sales were paltry, and producers closed shop.

*

As Glory Days illustrates, regional success doesn't guarantee triumph on Broadway. Those behind A Tale of Two Cities are hoping their show defies the unpredictability of the commercial theatre market. With its pop-tinged score, lavish sets and costumes, and one of the most recognizable opening lines in English literature — "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" — this adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel is already drawing comparisons to previous page-to-stage blockbuster Les Misérables.

For Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe, that's a happy coincidence. The married parents of two first met while performing in Les Miz (he played Marius to her Cosette), and now they are the executive producers of A Tale of Two Cities, having given up their acting careers to concentrate full-time on bringing the musical to Broadway.

"When you start thinking about it, it's so romantic to open a show on Broadway, and when that actually happens, you're like 'Oh my God, now we actually have to do all the work,'" Sharpe said in a phone interview. Billed as a "pre-Broadway engagement" from the start of its run at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the production's ultimate goal has always been clear, and on Aug. 19, A Tale of Two Cities is slated to begin performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Opening night is Sept. 18.

Set in late-18th century England and France, the classic story of love, redemption, and vengeance is required reading in many American schools. Iconic Dickens characters such as the virtuous Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), the respectable Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), and the drunken but ultimately selfless Sydney Carton (James Barbour) play out their grand, heartbreaking sagas under the growing shadow of the guillotine and the advancing French Revolution.

A Tale of Two Cities marks Jill Santoriello's Broadway debut. The musical's 42-year-old composer-lyricist-librettist had been writing songs inspired by the novel since high school, but it wasn't until she was introduced to Russell and Sharpe — through her brother Alex, a Broadway actor — that the prospect of turning her songs into a fully realized musical seemed possible.

"When you start something like that, you dream that it could one day be your full-time job," Santoriello told Playbill.com. "I've never lost my affection for and my inspiration from the story. That's basically why I've been able to not ever give up on it or lose faith in pushing forward with the project, because I just really believed in the story and getting it out there through the musical."

With Russell and Sharpe to guide it, Two Cities went through a slew of workshops and readings, including a symphonic concert in Indianapolis and a 23-track concept album released in 2002. Natalie Toro (who will reprise her role as Madame Defarge for Broadway), Christiane Noll, and movie actress Bryce Dallas Howard are among the 56 vocalists featured on the CD.

Florida may not have seemed the obvious choice for an out-of-town tryout (indeed, Chicago was originally scouted), but Asolo Rep's enthusiasm for the project — not to mention Sarasota's drastically lower expenses — proved too appealing to pass up. Newly appointed Asolo Rep producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards directed. Edwards has since been replaced for the Broadway run by the Florida production's choreographer, Warren Carlyle.

Legendary set designer Tony Walton (the original productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pippin, and Chicago) was engaged for A Tale of Two Cities. He calls his design a blend of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the infamous French Bastille. Sharpe said that Walton's striking sets have been enhanced even further for the Broadway run. When asked to describe how he feels as rehearsals begin (on Bastille Day, of course) and Broadway draws ever nearer, producer Sharpe responded, "At the same time [that] you're excited — you're nervous. We're very positive about the show and everything we've put together over the last nine years…I think Broadway's going to be very surprised at the product we've created and really enjoy the show."

Santoriello, a former programmer for Showtime Networks, answered the same question with thoughtful reflection. "There's this theme throughout the show about people's dreams and whether we get to realize them or not," she said. "It's a little ironic that this 20-some-odd year dream is coming true, but I guess it's sort of fitting." Not bad for a self-taught musician.

Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in [title of show]
photo by Carol Rosegg

* [title of show] creators Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell didn't take their inspiration from a classic novel or any other such source material. Their motivation came in the form of desperation.

Conceived in 2004, [title of show] was originally nothing more than a timed exercise to help rejuvenate Bowen and Bell's creativity. The submission deadline for the New York Musical Theatre Festival (then in its inaugural year) was three weeks away, and the 30-something pals agreed to write feverishly for 21 days and mail in whatever they produced. Thus "the musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical" was born. A blurred image of Bowen and Bell sprinting, clutching a large manila envelope, even serves as the poster image for the show.

"We almost didn't select it in the first year," says Kris Stewart, NYMF's founder. But as the first round of judging proceeded, he remembered it and thought, "Better than any other show, it reflected the kind of chaotic creativity we wanted the Festival to represent, the kind of risk-taking that we don't get to see in musical theatre as often as we'd like."

Stewart estimates that NYMF typically receives 300-400 submissions each year, 18 of which are chosen for production by a panel of notable theatre professionals.

Other first-year NYMF shows that have gone on to enjoy success regionally and Off-Broadway include The Great American Trailer Park Musical and Altar Boyz, now in its fourth year at New World Stages. However, [title of show] is the first NYMF alum to make it all the way to Broadway, and Stewart is partly to thank. The 34-year-old Australian believed in [title of show] so deeply that he is now one of its producers, his first venture into Broadway.

"The main reason I'm doing it is because I want these guys to get their Broadway dream — I really want to see this story 'finished,'" Stewart said. "Musicals are big and expensive and take a lot of resources, but they need to have the chance to get performed, not just seen in readings or concerts."

"Big" and "expensive" are not two words normally associated with the Obie Award-winning [title of show] (the cast prefers their own creatively combined words "cramazing" and "tossome.") Besides composer-lyricist Bowen and librettist Bell, the small cast also features Susan Blackwell (Speech and Debate) and Heidi Blickenstaff (The Little Mermaid) as their "talented ladyfriends," and a single keyboard manned by music director Larry Pressgrove. Michael Berresse, better known for his dancing and acting skills in Kiss Me, Kate and The Light in the Piazza, made his well-received New York directorial debut while also serving as the show's choreographer. Four mismatched chairs comprise the otherwise bare set.

A sign that their ambitious little musical was gaining momentum came when the guys realized they would need to hire understudies for the subsequent 2006 run at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre.

Courtney Balan, the understudy for Blackwell and Blickenstaff Off-Broadway and on, explained, "They're really playing characters even though it's based on them as real people. It's the actress Susan playing the character Susan. I'm the actress Courtney playing the character Susan. I'm not trying to be Susan Blackwell."

But it is sometimes tricky to not blur the line between character and actor with [title of show]. As the story moves forward, the audience witnesses the struggles of crushing writer's-block and the giddy joys of opening night. Personal real-life details about the foursome are sprinkled throughout. The musical's hyper self-awareness and autobiographical nature make it a perfect example of "meta-theatre," demolishing the fourth wall and inviting the audience to become completely engaged with not only the characters but the actors, as well.

After they closed at the Vineyard, the cast realized they missed their creative outlet, and they discovered YouTube. Beginning with shaky backstage footage and eventually evolving into "The [title of show] Show," the foursome (with technical help from Matt Vogel) embarked on producing short webisodes cleverly designed to keep their musical on the theatre community's radar. In the pilot episode, Bell and Bowen breathlessly announce that [title of show] is coming to Broadway: "We don't know how. We don't know where. Or when…I guess those are three things we've got to work on."

The ensuing episodes (there's even a Christmas special featuring Xanadu's Cheyenne Jackson) chronicle [title of show]'s self-imposed quest to make it to Broadway. Bowen constructs "the tossibility board" to chart the availability of theatres while the cast muses about which cities would be best for an out-of-town tryout, and some of Broadway's famous faces drop by for cameos. In a poignant episode posted on April 4, 2008, the cast reveals in a "Run Lola Run"-style race around Midtown Manhattan that the rumors (which they started) are true. The episode coincided with the official announcement by producers, who still had an option on the show during the period of the YouTube show. (Find the webisodes on YouTube or titleofshow.com.) [title of show] began Broadway previews July 5 at the Lyceum Theatre toward a July 17 opening.

Just as the musical adapted to its ever-changing stages of development, the Broadway version includes updated material about its Broadway life.

"Because we essentially had almost two years off — it was like a year-and-a-half off because we closed in October of 2006 — we had to incorporate all of that waiting, so the back third has been completely restructured to include the last year-and-a-half," Blickenstaff told Andrew Gans for his Playbill.com Diva Talk column. "The show's not any longer. It's still 90 minutes. We were able to kind of give the show a haircut and take off the parts that didn't quite work or that we wished we could make a little better, we made better. We changed some things, and then we added the last year-and-a-half to the back third."

"Shows like [title of show] should be able to get commercially produced, they should get done," producer Stewart said. "The talent is incredible and I think we all would like to believe, deep down, that there is still a place on Broadway for outsiders, for folks that we haven't heard of but who had clear and incredible talent."

Whether mainstream audiences will embrace the show's quirky sense of humor and obscure musical theatre references (Mary Stout, anyone?) remains to be seen, but the stage door mobs and enthusiastic tossers spotted during the first week of previews certainly reinforce the show's fundamental message.

"My dad is a 60-something-year-old man from New Jersey," understudy Balan said, "and I know he loved the show because it tells a story of friendship, and struggling with your craft, and how to make your dreams come true. That's sort of a universal thing, even if you're a plumber from Wisconsin."

(Lindsey Wilson is a theatre writer whose work has been seen in Playbill.com and the Syracuse Post Standard. Write her at lindseyannwilson@gmail.com.)

Today’s Most Popular News: