STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: This Is the Moment

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: This Is the Moment It's going to be an enormous surprise for anyone who walks in thinking he already knows the musical. I hope that what audiences loved about the show will still be there for them to embrace. But they're going to see a number of great changes."

It's going to be an enormous surprise for anyone who walks in thinking he already knows the musical. I hope that what audiences loved about the show will still be there for them to embrace. But they're going to see a number of great changes."

So says Frank Wildhorn, composer of Jekyll & Hyde, the musical set to start Broadway previews March 18 at the intimate Plymouth Theater.

"That's a very different house from the ones we played on our 30-city tour last season," says the jolly-faced, baseball-capped Wildhorn. "We were in 3,000-4,000 seat houses most of the time, but when we were in the Shubert in New Haven, we really saw what an intimate show we had."

New director Robin Phillips saw it, too, even when he first took a look at the show in Denver. By the time of the Baltimore closing in April, he'd signed on to take the reins from Gregory Boyd.

"Robin's taken us to a whole new plateau, because he's also designed the scenery. The set a wonderful combination of Victoriana and Gothic. But more important, he's helped with the book so that we now have more depth of character. We got called on that by the out-of-town critics -- and," he sighs, "rightly so. That 30-city tour gave us the opportunity to get more feedback than any pre-Broadway tryout ever received." So "Bring on the Men," the first song that Hyde's "love" Lucy (Linda Eder) sang when she entered as a nightclub chanteuse, is gone. "Now we first see her enter the stage door of the club, where her boss chastises her for not being on time. As she's getting dressed, he says, 'Who do you think you are to come in late?' and walks off. She says, 'Yeah, who do I think I am?' and sings 'No One Knows Who I Am' to a mirror as she changes into her performance costume. So we get to know about her first as a person before she goes on stage."

That doesn't mean we won't get to see Eder do a performance number, too. "Now she sings a song called 'Good and Evil,' much the way you'd see a singer do a number in a James Bond movie. It's not a new song," he admits, "but one I wrote in 1988 -- even though I didn't have a place for it then."

Don't look for a big production number here. "There aren't as many dancing girls in the show. 'Girls of the Night,' which they sang later, has been dropped, too. One of the things Robin has stressed is that this is a story about three people. Well," he amends, "three-and-a-half people, when you consider Hyde."

There are still some minor characters, but one major change has been made in them. "They're all older," he says. "You see, we've augmented the relationship between Jekyll and his father. So we've made all the characters around him older, too -- like father figures. For example, Utterson, his lawyer. Phillip Hoffman played it beautifully on tour, but he was Jekyll's age. Now with our new actor, George Merritt, the character has more authority. In recasting, we wanted to avoid having young people in old make-up, and got people with some years on them."

One change may disappoint three audiences each week: Robert Cuccioli, who plays the title characters, won't be doing matinees. "Listen," stresses Wildhorn, "Jekyll and Hyde are the largest male roles on Broadway. We've got to protect Bob, who gives 110 percent at every performance."

I'll attest to that. At a rehearsal at 890 Broadway on a murderously hot July day in 1995, the electricity -- and air-conditioning -- went out.

"So," explained then-director Boyd, "we're not going to ask Bob to throw himself around on the floor the way he does in performance."

Well, maybe they didn't ask, but Cuccioli did anyway. By the end of the first act, his light gray sweatsuit was dark gray from perspiration. So when Wildhorn says, "Bob's a warrior," I'll second that emotion.

"Besides," says Wildhorn, "we just didn't go out and get anyone. Rob Evans, who'll do the matinees, has been a Broadway Valjean" in Les Miserables.

We can look forward to a new cast album. "RCA did our first one, and Atlantic did our second. Though RCA had the rights to record the show on Broadway, we've now renegotiated so Atlantic can do our new album," Wildhorn said.

As J&H is rehearsing, Wildhorn will also be sitting in on casting The Scarlet Pimpernel, which will succeed Sunset at the Minskoff in November. Pierre Cosette and Kathy Raitt are producing, and Peter Hunt (of 1776 fame) is directing.

Following that, Wildhorn will be readying his Civil War musical which he's written with Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy. "We're doing a concept album with people from the theater and pop worlds -- from Hootie and the Blowfish to Betty Buckley, from Michel Bell to Dr. John. We'll do a two-hour television concert around Veterans' Day that Pierre is producing and Walter Miller is directing."

He stops to smile. "Come November, if all goes well -- and if Victor/Victoria (the show for which Wildhorn augmented the late Henry Mancini's score) is still running, -- then I'll have two-and-three sixteenths shows on Broadway."

And, with Sunset's setting and Whistle down the Wind announcing that Broadway will not be its home in 1997, Frank Wildhorn just may wind up this year with the most shows of any composer on the Great Wildhorn -- er, White Way.

--Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.