SCARLET PIMPERNEL INTERVIEW: Composer Frank Wildhorn

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Some people can concentrate on only one thing at a time. Composer Frank Wildhorn seems to concentrate on four dozen things at once -- and seemed unhappy unless he has four dozen more in reserve.
Scarlet Pimpernel composer Frank Wildhorn
Scarlet Pimpernel composer Frank Wildhorn

Some people can concentrate on only one thing at a time. Composer Frank Wildhorn seems to concentrate on four dozen things at once -- and seemed unhappy unless he has four dozen more in reserve.

"I like to switch around a lot," he told Playbill On-Line. "It keeps me from getting bored. You keep a lot of projects in the works, and when one is ready to be born, you feel the momentum around it."

Currently the momentum is for the opening of Wildhorn's latest, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Nov. 9. But look at what else is on his plate for the next two years: Jekyll & Hyde continues on Broadway, the Pimpernel cast recording, two CDs, a television special and a national tour of The Civil War, and a Latin-rhythmed revue called Havana.

Feb. 1999 will see the Jekyll & Hyde national tour take wing, while an international tour will start in Belgium. On top of all that, there's Wildhorn's pending marriage to fiance Linda Eder (a star of J&H), who will soon release her first Christmas album.

[Eder fans can hear her sing tunes from J&H, Pimpernel and other Broadway and pop standards at her concert, Nov. 14, at Town Hall on West 44th St. The gig starts at 11:30 PM so she can still do J&H that evening. Wildhorn told Playbill On-Line Eder would stay with Hyde through spring 1998 and then tour with a big band next summer.] But first: Pimpernel.
"Nan [Knighton, lyricist/librettist] and I are tightening up some things," Wildhorn told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 22), but the show should be frozen by the middle of next week. We're thinking of a possible reprise of a song at the end of the show. Also, I've changed a lot of underscoring. From the time you look at a scene with an audience, you say, `I can do a better job underscoring, but the process takes a week or more. Just in tweaking musical things, I'm just starting to see changes made a two weeks ago.'"

Wildhorn still considers himself a relative newcomer to the Great White Way: "I feel very much I'm a baby. Jekyll & Hyde was the very first professional music-theatre piece I ever wrote. Pimpernel is the second attempt at a big piece; I'd like to think I learned a lot. At least of having a good work ethic and practicing my craft. The shows are very different, so my responsibility as being hired to compose Pimpernel is different from being a creator of Hyde. Pimpernel is a much more traditional Broadway show. I auditioned to be the composer back in `89-90, when Arthur Kopit was writing the book and Mike Ockrent was the director. Who knew Jekyll & Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel -- which took seven months of my life -- would open within eight months of each other?"

Wildhorn praised his Scarlet collaborators. "Nan Knighton is a wonderful new talent on the theatre scene. She needs to be discovered and encouraged. And wait till you see Douglas Sills! He has star written all over him. Andreas and Mann are a joy to watch every night. It helps, because I try to write so the audience feels it's part of the show. It's the audience's energy that feeds into the performance every night. And the reaction is like you're at a rock concert! It's a wonderful buzz in your life a couple of times a week."

"Classical literature has such great stories and characters," said Wildhorn; "they want to sing all the time. In that way, the literature can become a base for something more contemporary. So you try to keep one foot in the classics, one foot in today's times, and your arms reaching into the future. And to draw younger audiences, speak in a musical vocabulary they can understand."

Wildhorn has had only one previous Broadway premiere, J&H, so he's not exactly one for opening rituals, but he does say he paces back and forth a lot. "I've never sat down for any performance in any show I've ever written, including the concerts. Opening nights are nice, but that means I'm not allowed to work on [the show] anymore. I'm not in this for the end of the journey; I love the passion and love you find on the journey itself. Besides, the ending is never what you think it's gonna be anyway. I've had a number one song and an opening on Broadway, but even then, it's never what you think it'll be. If you take enough wonderful journeys in your life, it comes out to a pretty good life."

And what of the other many journeys in Wildhorn's path? Well, The Civil War CD is turning into a major drawing card for pop singers. Wildhorn calls it, "the largest American theatre album ever made: 28-30 major acts." The composer mentions several: Hootie & The Blowfish, Trisha Yearwood, Betty Buckley, Linda Eder, Kenny Rogers and Carl Anderson. "Such a sweep of wonderful artists, I'm in heaven!" said Wildhorn. "[Civil War] combines what I love the most: theatre and the best pop singers in the world today making a record. It brings the record-making and theatre worlds together. This is an enormous commitment from Atlantic Records to a theatre piece. Not just RCA Victor or Sony Classics -- this is Atlantic Records, home of Led Zep and Jewel. Anyway, we expect a double album and single album in May and June. In August, Pierre Cossette will televise a two-hour special of the album. And Sept. 18, the full-year national tour starts at the Alley Theatre in Houston."

Wildhorn expects fall 1999 to bring Civil War to New York, "either to a Broadway house or the Paramount. And we'll go from there. This thing will have a very different kind of life from a Broadway show. It's not an oratorio, nor a play with music, nor a concert -- but it has elements of all those things. It's a huge emotional tapestry, the people of the times and the loss that defined those times. It consists of letters and diary entries and speeches -- that's the thread of the piece. Even Jack Murphy's song lyrics are based on poetry and speeches. The piece goes from Secession to the dawn of Gettysburg. (There was too much stuff to go to [the surrender at Appomatox].) And if it all works, maybe a year from now, we'll do the next part." Wildhorn said he has "a lot of ideas" about casting but won't be making any decisions until after Christmastime.

And what about that Havana revue? "It'll start as an Atlantic Records concept recording, but I'm hoping it'll be a real vehicle for my fiance [Eder], though that's not set in stone. The record will feature many of the world's best Latin and Cuban artists." Wildhorn expects the album to be released in spring 1999 -- coinciding with a Broadway opening "If I had my way."

Calling it "a film noir musical," Wildhorn said Havana is set in pre Castro Cuba, with "romance and intrigue and high stakes." The show is being co-created by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy -- the same team as on The Civil War.

Asked about his propensity to start the theatre process with a cast recording first -- often way before any public performance, Wildhorn told Playbill On-Line, "I would never begin to do a theatre piece without a record company's support for the recording. You pour your heart and soul into these things, they take forever to do, and the deck is always stacked against you. Why not have the machinery of a music business behind you from the beginning? It's a calling card for the show and a barometer of the audience's temperature. And they become workshops for the shows themselves. With Pimpernel, we've already had a top-40 hit with Linda and Peabo Bryson ["You Are My Home."]"

And what's on the Wildhorn back-burner? Svengali, which won the 1991 Alton Jones Foundation Award. "We did it in Houston and Florida," said Wildhorn, "but Jekyll & Hyde reared its head and took over our lives. Svengali was written for Linda, and we'll be doing it -- and, of course, a recording of it."

A version of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass is also in the offing -- another collaboration between Wildhorn, Boyd and Murphy. "I see it as `Magical Mystery Tour/Sergeant Pepper meets Danny Elfman," said Wildhorn. "We're talking to a major, major female artist for the concept recording."

And last but not least, Carnivale. "We're in the beginning stages," said Wildhorn. "Me and Sergio Mendes are creating a Brazilian Riverdance -- and not, it's not like Oba Oba. We figure it'll open in Spain or South America before it even gets here."

But for tonight, all that takes a back seat to Pimpernel.

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