PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Des McAnuff

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Des McAnuff Director Des McAnuff likes a good yarn about unforgettable people living and yearning in remarkable eras.
Des McAnuff
Des McAnuff

If his Broadway productions of The Who's Tommy and Big River — filled with indelible characters rooted to their time and place — weren't proof enough, take Broadway's current Dracula the Musical, a sweeping rewrite of Irishman Bram Stoker's 1897 novel about a Transylvanian vampire and a British woman named Mina Murray, whose purity represents the best of Victorian England.

McAnuff tested the Frank Wildhorn-Christopher Hampton-Don Black musical at La Jolla Playhouse, where he is artistic director, in 2001. The show, packed with cinematic effects, pulsing sexuality, violent bloodlust and creepy romance, is currently playing at the Belasco Theatre following revisions and refinements since the California tryout. Tom Hewitt stars as Dracula, Melissa Errico is Mina, Kelli O'Hara is Lucy.

On the last day of rehearsal, while in previews leading up to the Aug. 19 opening, McAnuff talked to Playbill On-Line about changing the "Dracula" storyline to suit a musical, his attraction to the material and the controversy about nudes scenes at the Belasco.

Playbill On-Line: How did the idea for Dracula the Musical come about? How long has it been brewing?
Des McAnuff: I had this notion, just before the [1992] Coppola film ["Bram Stoker's Dracula"] and I admit that it's a rather obvious idea. It kind of bothered me that no one had gone back to the novel for a stage adaptation. I did love the old Dennis Rosa [-directed Broadway] production [1977-80], with the Edward Gorey sets, but I thought the script was so weak because it was based on the old 1920s melodrama and not Bram Stoker's original. I think I was probably inspired by some of the other novels that had been adapted so successfully for the stage, like "Nicholas Nickleby." I also spent a lot of time in Russia at the time, where that's very common: You take a popular novel and you adapt it for the stage. We tend to do it more with movies.

PBOL: You worked with another collaborator on the idea and it didn't materialize...
DM: It fell on the back burner. A mutual friend tried for some time to get Frank Wildhorn and I together. This mutual friend suggested we have a meeting and named a bunch of titles that Frank was considering. Frank always has a lot of titles, of course. One of the titles was "Dracula." I said, "OK, I have a notion for 'Dracula' myself" and we met. Frank had also seen the Dennis Rosa production back in the '70s and that's what he was thinking about: Going back to the melodrama. That was of no interest to me, but I said I would be interested in talking about the possibility about going back to the novel. We spent some time together, spent a couple days on the music, he read the book. We talked about it over about six months. We talked about collaborators. Still, there was no real project, just an outline for a project. We thought it would be good to have British collaborators, in that it's an Irish novel. I spoke to Chris Hampton and he spoke to Don Black, they had done Sunset Blvd. together. [Hampton] agreed that the way to do it was to go back to the novel. That was 1999, and we set off on our journey together. PBOL: I kept wondering why a big lush romantic musical of "Dracula" hasn't been done before, and then I dipped into the novel, which is made up of diary and journal entries from various characters. It's a real challenge to imagine it from the page to the stage: It's not exactly a well-made play – or narrative — to start with.
DM: Exactly! Interestingly enough, part of Stoker's motivation, without question, is that he was [actor] Henry Irving's business manager: Bram Stoker was very much a man of theatre. They ran the Lyceum Theatre together. One of their great successes was Faust. Stoker definitely had a stage adaptation of "Dracula" in mind. There was a reading in 1897 of the book at the theatre. There were programs printed. Ellen Terry's daughter played Mina Murray. Henry Irving didn't participate, just listened to 20 minutes of it. When Stoker sheepishly asked him what he thought, his response was, "Dreadful!" So he never did it; it was never adapted. It was such a shame Stoker didn't live to see the adaptation, which admittedly drifted a long, long way from the novel. My initial thought was, OK, well, let's make use of the actual voices of the characters. Chris felt really strongly that that wasn't the way to go, that it needed to be a different kind of adaptation. As it turns out, he was absolutely right. This is a roundabout way of saying I think there is dramatic structure there underneath. You just have to strip away a lot. Stoker falls in love with his own ability to describe everything, sometimes in great boring detail. It's almost like a travelogue at times, the novel. There is a strong foundation for a play — not that we haven't deviated out of necessity from time to time.

PBOL: What attracted you to the material?
DM: I think it's the whole ride: the eroticism; Stoker's writing at a time of repressed sexuality, which gives the piece a certain amount of power; I'm interested that it's written at a time of enormous change. Mostly, though, our motivations are probably similar to Stoker's: I see this as a great performance vehicle for a great actor. And Henry Irving may not have had the humility to see what a great role his protege had written for him, but Tom Hewitt definitely sees it. It is a wonderful performance vehicle for this actor. I am so dedicated to Tom, who is utterly brilliant in the role. He alone is reason to do it.

PBOL: What did you learn from the La Jolla production?
DM: In the novel Dracula is very much a predator, lower down the food chain, a dark force that comes out of the East, but there is a no real connection between Mina and Dracula. This clearly screamed to have a great love story in it. That great love story is really not there in the novel. There is a love story, but it's really between all of the men and Mina after Lucy's death. It was very clear, after doing it in La Jolla, we needed a strong spine for the story: Dracula goes after Lucy first, then she disappears, and Mina dominates the second act. We learned we had to go back, dramaturgically, and strengthen that bond.

PBOL: What about the music has changed?
DM: [With this story], you tend to get into slower tempo/minor key stuff fairly easily and we've gone in a very different direction this time around. About half the score has changed since La Jolla.

PBOL: The word "life" is very important in song titles in the show. I love the irony of that: In a play you think is about death, the main character views his actions as being about life — immortality, in fact, which is the ultimate life.
DM: There's that great Shakespeare quote, "And all at war with time." Dracula is the one creature who has conquered and beaten time. He's achieved what's beyond our wildest dreams: Perpetual life. Those birth/death images are throughout the piece.

PBOL: The musical ends differently than the novel and other versions of this tale...
DM: I never thought the end of the novel was terribly strong. That was a real dilemma for us. I would even go so far to say almost the last third [is weak]: The journey toward Castle Dracula, it just didn't have what we needed for a climax for this story. I think the end of the novel is one of those places where he ran out of steam. I don't think he knew how to wrap it up. For us, Mina represents death and freedom and love — I am reasonably pleased with [our ending] although I wouldn't be surprised if it were controversial.

PBOL: Controversial? Like, "Dracula" purists coming at you with torches and pitchforks?
DM: Yeah, in little capes with fake teeth.

PBOL: Heidi Ettinger's design for the show is rapturous. I love that the art nouveau scenic design seems to bleed from the stage right into the interior of the Belasco, one of Broadway's oldest houses.
DM: I had a very good sense of the way I wanted the show to work: The tricks I wanted to use, the mechanics. But I will give Heidi credit for coming up with the art nouveau [flavor], specifically [drawing on Spanish designer architect Antoni] Gaudi because he had such a medieval [quality]. It's right on in terms of the [late 19th-century] period, but it also evokes an earlier age: There's an eroticism and darkness to it. I think it was an ingenious choice. [In previews] we've [decorated] the proscenium arch, too, and it's a bridging device between the [set] and the theatre's murals. I don't think you could be in a better theatre in terms of atmosphere.

PBOL: Did it frustrate you when people started talking about the nudity in the production? [The brief female nudity was to be cut from matinees, but producers have since decided against it.] It seems like a tempest in a B cup.
DM: I think it's great! Let them talk about it. They're lining up. Whatever gets them into the theatre. I'm very proud of this piece and I want people to see it. I just hope young people get to see it, too. We're selling the balcony very inexpensively, and it has been packed with young goths. I'm not surprised people are talking about the nudity. I don't think there's anything exploitive about it. With Lucy, it's a tremendously vulnerable moment. In that image you get the horror and the repulsion and also the eroticism and the attraction all mixed together in this strange concoction, which I guess is vampire sexuality.

PBOL: The Belasco Theatre is said to be haunted by the famed impresario. Have you seen David Belasco hanging around?
DM: I have not, but we had a torrential flood stage left during a rehearsal. So, there are times I'd swear some force is at work here.

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