Frank Wildhorn just couldn't stop grinning.
As some two dozen cast members of his forthcoming Broadway musical The Scarlet Pimpernel performed six numbers from the show in a press preview Sept. 4, composer Wildhorn showed none of the usual four weeks-to-opening signs of nervousness.
In fact, the man whose hit Jekyll & Hyde opened just five months ago was lounging in a corner of the Lincoln Center rehearsal hall, smiling like a cat who not only just ate the canary, but is certain he has another fat one already within pouncing distance.
"I'm having fun," he told Playbill On-Line. "I wake up in the morning and I can't believe they're letting me do this. I'm making the best music I can with people I like."
As the group producer Pierre Cosette referred to as "Team Pimpernel" races to get Scarlet ready for its Oct. 7 first preview and Nov. 9 opening at the Minskoff Theatre, Wildhorn is also monitoring rehearsals for the openings of Jekyll & Hyde in Belgium (Sept. 18) and Australia; (Oct. 25) doing rewrites on his musical version of -- gulp -- the American Civil War, titled, appropriately, The Civil War, for its 1998 pre-Broadway tour; and making preparations for his wedding to J&H star Linda Eder. "And it's all happening at once," Wildhorn said, shaking his head and laughing. "When it happens, you just have to go with it."
The Pimpernel opening will mark the first time a theatre composer has opened two complete new musicals in a single calendar year since Cy Coleman did it in 1989, when he opened Welcome to the Club in April and City of Angels in December of that year.
How hard is it to have two big openings in less than seven months?
"Like Jekyll & Hyde," Wildhorn said, "it's going through birthing pains. But Pimpernel's been like a flash compared with Jekyll. Jekyll was my first, and it was Linda's [Eder's] first. It's like talking about your first kid: it's so special because it's your first. But this [Pimpernel] is a lot calmer, I've learned a lot that hopefully I can use here."
Set during the darkest days of the Reign of Terror that followed the bright days of the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel is the story of a nobleman who resolves to return to France and combat the worst excesses of Robespierre and his ruthless radicals by adopting two identities: one as an effete, effeminate over-rouged fop, "Percy," the other as a dreadnought caped crusader for the innocent and downtrodden -- The Scarlet Pimpernel!
The first number performed at the press preview was "Madame Guillotine" (also the show's opening number). Set in the Place de la Bastille in 1794, as the guillotine blade falls, the bloodthirsty crowd exhorts the condemned to "Savor the sting! Slice! Come paradise," setting the tone of mob rule gone murderously insane.
The preview was performed with no sets and bare suggestions of costumes: the women wore long skirts; several of men wore muscle shirts, which emphasized when they threw their heads and shoulders thrown back to sing Wildhorn's heroic score. Nine of its 20 songs have been written since the 1992 release of the popular concept CD.
Next up, Terrence Mann as the villain Chauvelin demonstrated his Javert like determination to swoop down on his prey, "Like a Falcon in the Dive," and wrap his claws around this "scurrilous phantom."
Like most of the changes in the show, the title "Falcon in the Dive" arose from Wildhorn's story meetings with lyricist/librettist Nan Knighton. "We talked through the scene," Wildhorn said, "and we decided we needed a strong song that communicated Chauvelin's character and energy, and moved the plot ahead. I mean, he's the Terminator. He's got to find the Pimpernel."
As for the falcon imagery, "She [Knighton] came up with that hook. I'm always looking for a good hook."
The next number, "Into the Fire," showed Scarlet Pimpernel at its most testosterone-soaked. As the Pimpernel's band of merry men gradually catches his contagious enthusiasm to return to France, 11 men against thousands, to quell the horrors of the Reign of Terror, they respond with bass/baritone/tenor fervor to his exhortation: "Put your lives -- every one of you -- into the fire!"
If many of these song descriptions seem to end with exclamation points, that's pretty much how the actors played them at the press preview.
Leas Christine Andreas and Douglas Sills had an unusual tender moment in the song "I Never Said Her Name," followed by one of the key transitions in the musical -- worthy of Robert Cuccioli's hair-whipping duet with himself in Jekyll & Hyde -- except here, it was Sills whiplashing from his Clark Kent persona to his Superman persona as he tries to woo a lady, hoodwink his nemesis and organize his men virtually simultaneously. At the conclusion of the scene, Sills got so consumed in his performance that he dashed off blindly -- then bounced against the rehearsal hall wall full of Jane Greenwood's costumes sketches, knocking some down. He shrugged and flashed a dashing, boyish grin.
Though the villain and leading lady are played by Broadway veterans Mann and Andreas, the Pimpernel himself is played by Broadway newcomer Sills. His is a classic Broadway story. Trained at Actors' Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco "It's a tremendous asset that I draw on moment after moment," he said), Sills has paid his legit dues at some of the West Coast's top resident theatres, including South Coast Rep and California Shakespeare Theatre. He's a co-founder of Antaeus Theatre, and remains a proud member. And now, he's making his Broadway debut as the star of this major new musical.
"I've heard him [the Pimpernel] compared to Zorro, to Superman, to the Lone Ranger," Sills said. "I tell everyone: he was the first of the mild mannered heroes."
Sills said, "I love that he was written by a woman [both the original novel by Baroness Orczy and the musical's Knighton] and that he has a basis in literature. There are so many layers to play. I love the juxtaposition of the comedy and the life-and-death aspects."
Sills and Mann demonstrated some of the latter in a recreation of the show's climactic sword fight, for which Sills took some formal training. "You use it every minute you're playing the character," Sills said. "Even when you're pulling on a pair of gloves, it all has the same life to it, so you use it even when you're not swashbuckling."
Last of all, the cast performed "You Are My Home," a rock ballad in which imprisoned and condemned lovers and friends bid final farewell in the moments before dawn, when they will be guillotined -- unless someone, someone can save them!
If the rock aspect of the song at first seems out of place with the period, Wildhorn offers no excuses: "Remember, all this happened because of an album," he said. Like Jekyll & Hyde -- not to mention Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and The Life before them -- The Scarlet Pimpernel began in 1992 with a concept album.
"We had a top 40 hit with Peabo Bryson, then producer Pierre Cosette heard the album, and we were off. This is a project that exists because of a collaboration between the music world and the theatre world. I take shots for that -- but that's the way it is."
Here is the running order of the songs in Scarlet Pimpernel, as of Sept. 4, 1997. Songs marked with an asterisk (*) have been added since the 1992 concept CD. Songs from the CD not listed here have been cut.
"Before the Fall" *
"Into the Fire"
"Falcon in the Dive"*
"When I Look at You"
"The Scarlet Pimpernel"
"Where's the Girl" *
"The Creation of Man"
"They Seek Him Here"
"Only Love" *
"I Never Said Her Name" *
"The New World" *
"What a Way To Go" *
"You Are My Home"
"Into the Fire" (Reprise)