Shaw Sings Anew in World Premiere of A Minister's Wife, Opening June 4

News   Shaw Sings Anew in World Premiere of A Minister's Wife, Opening June 4 There's a new "fair lady" singing the sentiments of George Bernard Shaw. A Minister's Wife, the new musical adapted from Shaw's 1898 play, Candida, with music by Adding Machine composer Joshua Schmidt, lyrics by Jan Tranen and book by Austin Pendleton, opens in its world-premiere run in suburban Chicago June 4 after previews from May 19.
A Minister's Wife's Alan Schmuckler and Kate Fry
A Minister's Wife's Alan Schmuckler and Kate Fry Photo by Michael Brosilow

The musical is conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, IL, which is producing the work to July 19.

A Minister's Wife is the first full-length musical penned by composer Schmidt since his expressionist Adding Machine (for which he composed music and co-wrote the libretto) wowed critics in Chicago and New York City. In spring 2008, Adding Machine won four Lucille Lortel Awards (including Outstanding Musical), among other awards that spring, for the Off-Broadway production.

According to Writers' Theatre's notes on A Minister's Wife, "Reverend James Morell and his wife, Candida, are happily married — at least so they think. But when Eugene Marchbanks, a romantic young poet aims to rescue Candida from her domestic routine, everyone's world is turned upside down. Sharp, witty and tender, A Minister's Wife explores the fires burning beneath the surface of an ordinary marriage and discovers a secret in the heart."

Shaw revised his 1898 play in 1930. The musical is based on the earlier version.

The cast includes Liz Baltes (as Proserpine Garnett), Kate Fry (Candida Morell), Kevin Gudahl (Reverend James Morell), John Sanders (Reverend Alexander Mill) and Alan Schmuckler (Eugene Marchbanks). The most famous musicalization of a Shaw play is My Fair Lady, after Shaw's play (and screenplay) Pygmalion. Composer Schmidt said the goal of the collaborators of A Minister's Wife was to not slip into the skins of writers from the 1950s who were working in a classic book-musical mode.

"What Lerner and Loewe did in the 1950's with Shaw's screenplay of 'Pygmalion' was miraculous," Schmidt told Playbill.com. "But Candida as a play cannot take interruption of song without interrupting the dramatic flow; so to impose a 50-year-old structural answer on a piece that cannot handle it is not only a mistake, it is disrespectful to people like Lerner and Loewe [and] Rogers and Hammerstein whose achievements in that area will never be equaled. I think they would have advocated me taking a risk and finding my own way, regardless if they agreed or not. It is a great challenge to take on the task, and an honor to have the work presented for others to see and discuss."

Of the musical world that inspired the new score, Schmidt explained, "I have always been in love with the music of this era: Late Brahms, late Liszt, the music of Max Reger. It always seemed like a great starting point [for A Minister's Wife]. Here in this music lies so many unarticulated feelings submerged under a bed of deep, raw emotion. And, above all, this music is just flat out beautiful, even haunting. This is exactly what I wanted to accomplish in the score for A Minister's Wife (a tall order), but in my own way — informed by, but not copied, from such sources.

"Shaw was a student of the music of Wagner, as well as a student of Mozart. It is true that Candida the play is born out of a fusion of these studies. From Mozart, one hears in Shaw's dialogue the virtuosic density, rhythm and phrasing of the spoken line while maintaining the importance of each word. From Wagner, Shaw utilizes a model of dramatic form in which each scene is built upon another scene which itself has been developed to the point of its highest tension only to be left unresolved. To develop the music, lyrics, and book for Minister's Wife, both these 'musical' qualities within Shaw needed not only to be preserved, but heightened.

"This is an extremely organic process — trial and error became our primary mode of operation. As a result, I think you get a score that is of a whole evening and not simply a collection of tunes, although there are very clearly defined songs set off by text in this musical — much more so than in Adding Machine, where the dramatic requirements of the text were radically different."

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Halberstam stated, "I have been working for the past four years to bring this piece to life with a dream team of collaborators. And the adventure of creating this new musical has been a uniquely Writers' Theatre experience. The attention we focused on the word and the artist has allowed this piece to come to life with the fullness and richness under which it was originally imagined. It has been a rare and beautiful journey."

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The creative team includes Keith Parham (lighting), Rachel Anne Healy (costume), Brian Sidney Bembridge (scenic), Richard Carsey (musical director) and Tim Splain (assistant musical director).

Halberstam is the artistic director and co-founder of Writers' Theatre. He has directed more than 30 productions for the company including Not About Heroes (starring Nicholas Pennell), Private Lives, Look Back in Anger, Candida, The Father, Crime and Punishment, Benefactors, Seagull, The Duchess of Malfi, Othello, The Savannah Disputation and Nixon's Nixon.

Pendleton, an actor, director and playwright who created the role of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, returns to Writers' Theatre where he wrote and appeared in Booth, directed by David Cromer, in a role originated in New York by Frank Langella. Pendleton also wrote Orson's Shadow and Uncle Bob. His recent New York directing credits include Uncle Vanya (Classic Stage Company), Michael Weller's Fifty Words (Manhattan Class Company) and Barbara Eda-Young's Lillian Yuralis (La Mama). He has acted on and Off-Broadway and in many regional theatre.

Schmidt, a composer and busy sound designer, is a Writers' Theatre artistic associate who made his Chicago debut at Writers' Theatre in 2001 when he composed music for A Phoenix Too Frequent. Other Chicago credits include The Tempest, Love-Lies-Bleeding, A Tale of Two Cities, Things Being What They Are, World Set Free (Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Adding Machine and Far Away (Next Theatre), The Chalk Garden and Lady Windermere's Fan (Northlight Theatre), Celebrity Row (American Theatre Company) and Off-Broadway credits include Adding Machine (Minetta Lane Theatre), Fifty Words (MCC Theatre), Crime and Punishment (59E59 Theatres) and Candida (Jean Cocteau Repertory).

Jan Tranen is making her Writers' Theatre debut and has written the lyrics for Night in Sarajevo, a one-act opera by Jay Schwandt which was staged at the Theatre Building Chicago in 1997. With Schwandt she went on to co-write the book and write lyrics for Crazy Mary, musical about Mary Todd Lincoln's life after her husband's assassination. The first reading of Crazy Mary was staged by Michael Halberstam in 1999. It got a full production in 2000 at the Hartt School, University of Connecticut in Hartford. She also co-wrote the book and wrote lyrics for Steadfast the One Legged Tin Soldier, a family holiday musical with music by Elizabeth Doyle.

Curtain times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 4 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM and 6 PM. There will be no performance on June 9, July 3, July 4 and no Sunday 6 PM performances on June 28 or July 19. Wednesday matinees begin at 2 PM on June 10, 24 and July 15.

Writers' Theatre is located at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are $40-$65 and are available at the box office, 376 Park Avenue, Glencoe, IL.

For more information call (847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.

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Writers' Theatre "is a professional company focusing on the Word and the Artist," according to the mission statement. "Remaining true to the intention of the playwright and nurturing the artist stand at the center of the mission. Now in its 17th season, the company both revives classic scripts and cultivates new works and adaptations while invigorating them with fresh energy in the intimacy of its venues."

Kevin Gudahl and Kate Fry in <i>A Minister's Wife</i>
Kevin Gudahl and Kate Fry in A Minister's Wife Photo by Michael Brosilow