When Florida State University's School of Theatre revived Frank Loesser's Greenwillow in February, that was just the first step on a new journey for the piece, which opened on Broadway in 1960 and hasn't been revived since.
"Frank took the show out of circulation after the closing of the original production," said his widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser. "The score received almost unanimous praise, [but] the book had its problems." The story, from a bestseller by B.J. Chute, focuses on Gideon Briggs, "a young man torn between love and adventure."
The FSU Lab production featured a newly revised book by Douglas Holmes and Walter Willison, augmenting the original Frank Loesser and Lesser Sammuels book. Also, two never-before-heard Loesser tunes were added to a score that already included "Summertime Love," "Never Will I Marry" and "The Music Of Home."
Further changes were made after that workshop production, and the show will now have two major stagings almost simultaneously. Sarasota's Golden Apple Theatre will produce the Greenwillow "revisal," June 10-July 27, with an opening scheduled for June 12. Author Willison will direct. There'll also be a different, larger-scale mounting of the piece, directed by Vince Liotta, at the Utah Festival Opera Company, opening July 19. All this is in preparation for a Broadway date in 1998, Golden Apple spokesperson Lyla Fitzgerald told Playbill On-Line. The production is now fully titled, Frank Loesser's Greenwillow: The Musical Folktale.
Cast in the show, which goes into pre-rehearsal May 26, are Helen Blout (Follies) as Granny. (Blout did backers auditions for Greenwillow 37 years ago. She replaced Susan Johnson in the role on the subsequent national tour.) Andy Driscoll is leaving Miss Saigon to play Gideon. Jacquiline [sic] Rohrbacker (State Fair) will play Aggie Likewise. Maxine Wood plays ingenue Dorrie. Jeffrey Atherton plays Rev. Lapp. Marianne Rhodes will play Martha Briggs. Walter Willison will play Amos Briggs. Douglas Holmes will play Little Fox Jones. Lorraine Sheeler plays Miss Emma. Cynthia Heining plays Mrs. Hasty. Soap opera actor James Pritchett plays Thomas Clegg. Maggie Taylor plays Clara Clegg. Kyle Turoff will offer a pre-show, Frank Loesser medley. Crystal Lee plays Miss Maidy. Richard Bigelow plays Mr. Lunny. Choreographer Wages will play Jack Fink. Children in the show are played by Ben Caswell, Olli [sic] Haaskivi, Christopher Tiesi, Alexander Tiesi, Ashley Orr. (12-year-old Haaskivi learned about the casting of Greenwillow by reading about the show on Playbill On-Line and made sure his parents brought him to the audition.) Jo Loesser will be on site supervising the production. Choreographing the show will be Brad Wages; music director is Michael Sebastian. Costumes are by Barney FitzGerald [sic]; bunraku puppets are designed by Beth Dudah.
Interviewed by Playbill On-Line, April 15, writer Willison said original co-author Lesser Sammuels is no longer credited on the new book, which will run much closer to the novel. "As Frank [Loesser] was wont to do, he wrote the score before the book was written, so his songs came out of the novel. We went back to original source material and wrote a new book. The original book tended towards 1960s musical comedy, but this is more about family values, spirituality vs. religion vs. superstition and issues relevant to today."
Willison continued, "The original novel took place in the 1930s, backwoods America. The musical, though, was kind of a fairy-tale community; we're more realistic and, hopefully, we've strengthened the characters. Also, the first show had three huge dance numbers and jokey musical comedy; now it's more a human comedy. There's a lot of material that Jo [Sullivan Loesser] had of Frank's that really helps the piece. She hasn't let anybody do Greenwillow all these years because it wasn't quite right. So we wrote this new book on spec, and she loved it. She's Doug [Holmes] and my mentor, very much guiding the project, sort of the way Frank represented a lot of writers, such as Meredith Willson, and Adler & Ross. We're trying to do the show Frank wanted, but he died before he could fix it. Jo is fixing it for him."
Asked about specific songs that are new to the show, Willison said, "There's a great, funny song called `My Beauty,' which was cut out of town -- the young boy sings it to his cow. `Truly Loved' is from Pleasures And Palaces, which closed out of town. `House And Garden,' was the first song Jo ever sang in Most Happy Fella. It was cut, but it works beautifully in Greenwillow."
One reason the project is going forward so quickly is how well the piece worked at its college staging in Tallahassee. "The idea," said Willison, "was to let them do it and then look at it after they'd don e it. We were so pleased. Then we did additional work and had workshops with Marcia Lewis of Chicago and Andy Driscoll, who's in Miss Saigon right now. Emily Loesser, who's Frank and Jo's daughter, played the ingenue. Marcia was phenomenal in the Pert Kelton part. Emily was great, too, but she's on tour in By Jeeves, so she's unavailable for Sarasota or Utah. The only person definite for Sarasota is Andy, who's leaving Miss Saigon for ten weeks to do it."
"One reason I wanted to do the piece at Golden Apple," said Willison, "is that we only had 14 people at the reading. Everybody said, `Don't let it get any bigger.' So I thought, let's do a production that size and not have 20 people hanging around the chorus. Still, I couldn't believe the amount of talent at the 14-hour, open-call audition in Florida."
As for the 1998 Broadway outlook, Willison is hopeful but wary of "rushing a production to Broadway before it's ready. We haven't even talked about a cast album. The original was so extraordinary, until everything's place..."
In other Loesser-in-Florida news, Jo Sullivan Loesser has been extremely active at the 250-seat Golden Apple, not only on Greenwillow but on the company's August revue, Heart And Soul. Said spokesperson Fitzgerald, "It's a revue not only of songs, but of pieces of letters and writings by Frank. Even his drawings." The show will run Aug. 12-31 in preparation for an Off-Broadway staging in 1998.
-- By Harry Haun and David Lefkowitz