You have to go back six years to City of Angels to find a brand-new, based-on-nothing, from-the-ground-up original American musical, but next year could see two of those rarities in a single Broadway season--both from the same Tony-winning lead-angel who produced that aforementioned City of Angels.
"I seem to specialize in those kinds of things," says Roger Berlind with some undisguised pride. His producing plate is filled with two such projects earmarked for 1997.
"You don't plan to do two original musicals in one year--hell, you don't necessarily plan to do one a year, but it's just that suddenly things will fall into place when everybody's schedules come together."
The musicals which Berlind has in the works are not biographically based originals like Jelly's Last Jam or The Will Rogers Follies, but they are--if filled with fictional characters--rooted in very specific historical times.
Steel Pier, which had an eight-week workshop at the 890 Broadway studios in New York in June and July, is a musical by Cabaret's John Kander and Fred Ebb about marathon-dancing in The Depression of the 1930s--a phenomenon reminiscent of, but not derived from, Horace McCoy's 1935 novel and Sydney Pollack's 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The musical's book, a love story with that chaotic backdrop, is an original by David (And the World Goes 'Round) Thompson.
As Playbill On-Line reported in July, Berlind intends to open the show in April 1997 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre -- after another Kander & Ebb show, Chicago, completes a limited-run revival there.
Heading up the workshop's impressive cast were Gregory (Paper Moon) Harrison, Karen (Crazy for You) Ziemba, Debra (Company) Monk, Joel (Show Boat) Blum, Ron (How To Succeed...) Carroll and Daniel (First Night) McDonald. The Broadway cast hasn't been announced yet.
"I haven't started thinking yet at all about how this is going to be presented to the world--other than the fact we're going to let the whole process finish," says Berlind. "Our intention is to go into rehearsal in January and open in April."
"Also," adds Berlind, "I think The Life is going to happen." The Cy Coleman-Ira Gasman musical about the pimps, whores and sleaze of 42nd Street has been in the works for years--so many years it is now, thank God, a period-piece.
The show's latest impetus is the signing-up of Michael Blakemore, the British director who steered "City of Angels" to six Tony Awards. "Michael has made terrific contributions," says Berlind. "He's in town for a few weeks, working with the writers. [David Newman is the show's chief book author, sharing that credit with lyricist Gassman and composer Coleman. The latter is also co-producing the musical with Berlin, Martin Richards and Sam Crothers.
A concept album, cleverly designed to turn the new songs into old standards by the time the show reaches Broadway, has just gone into release. Among the celebrities sampling the hits-to-be are Jennifer Holliday, Liza Minnelli, George Burns, Lou Rawls, Joe Williams, Jack Jones, Peggy Lee, Billy Stritch and Bobby Short. "The hope," says Berlind, "is the songs get out there in the marketplace and become popular. They should. I think it's Cy's best score."
No theatre for The Life has been selected, he says. "We're part of the logjam. All the good theatres are in mind. It will be a very big show."
Joey McKneely and Thommie Walsh reportedly are being considered as choreographers.