These days that renowned Pimpernel The Scarlet Pimpernel is far from elusive. The musical version of the swashbuckling 1905 novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy has come to Broadway, where it opens Nov. 9 at the Minskoff.
The tale of a British nobleman who bravely rescues French aristocrats from the Revolution's guillotine in 1794 Paris stars Broadway newcomer Douglas Sills as Sir Percy Blakeney, the foppish English gentleman who, disguised as the Pimpernel (his symbol, a small red flower found in the English countryside), is always a neck ahead of the Reign of Terror.
Christine Andreas is Marguerite, Sir Percy's newlywed and instantly estranged wife she thinks he's a fop, he thinks she's a spy. And Terrence Mann is the villain Chauvelin, the Pimpernel's archenemy and Marguerite's former lover. The music is by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde), the book and lyrics by Nan Knighton and the direction by Peter Hunt.
"It's a great love story and a great adventure," says Hunt, a Tony Award winner as Best Director of a Musical in 1969 for the original production of 1776. "It doesn't take itself too seriously, and at the same time it's about someone who tries to make a difference in a time gone bad. The French Revolution has gone insane, and Sir Percy takes it upon himself to make things better. That's the serious part. But what we really are is a great romp. It's a terrific ride. And the thing that holds it together is the love story the audience wanting so desperately for Percy and Marguerite to get back together."
The Broadway Pimpernel, like its namesake, was elusive for a long time. "It's been an eight-year journey for me," says Wildhorn, 38, a renowned pop composer who has written hit songs for Whitney Houston, Kenny Rogers, Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson and others. "But it happened much faster than Jekyll. That took 17 years."
Wildhorn's Pimpernel saga began in 1989, when he was asked to audition to become the show's composer. "I played 45 minutes of music I wrote in my head to a book that at the time didn't exist," the Harlem-born, self-educated musician recalls. "I did it on just what I was feeling. And I got the job."
When it came time to write the actual music, however, Wildhorn at first had difficulty. "I didn't even know what a scarlet pimpernel was," he says. "I had not seen the movie" the classic 1935 film starring Leslie Howard as Sir Percy, Merle Oberon as Marguerite and Raymond Massey as Chauvelin "and I had not read the book." And then one day he found his inspiration: Hillard Elkins, the producer who united Wildhorn with Leslie Bricusse for Jekyll, introduced him to Leonard Bernstein's score for Candide.
"It became an inspiration for the more operatic, theatrical moments of Pimpernel," says Wildhorn. "Writing big, emotionally sweeping ballads comes easy to me. But I needed to find a musical vocabulary for Pimpernel that would serve the piece and be satisfying to write. And when I heard Candide, something clicked."
In 1992 Wildhorn and Knighton released a concept album for the show on EMI's Broadway Angel label. One track, "You Are My Home," sung by Peabo Bryson and Linda Eder, became a Top 40 hit. "I wouldn't dare do a show unless I put an album out first," Wildhorn says. "Doing a show is so hard that I find it impossible without the support of the recording industry." Producer Pierre Cossette heard the recording and decided to get involved in bringing Pimpernel to Broadway.
But a major problem remained the show's libretto. "Many different writers tried their hand at it," Wildhorn recalls. "All along Nan's lyrics had shown such an innate feeling for what the show should be, and one summer she went to Nantucket and said she was going to take a shot at writing the book, too. And she got the job."
Knighton, a Broadway newcomer (who is also writing the book for a live musical version of Saturday Night Fever, with music by the Bee Gees, that will premiere at the London Palladium in April), credits Wildhorn for her success. He was looking for a lyricist for Pimpernel and had been given Knighton's name. "We talked on the phone, and he told me to send him lyrics but only things that were on tape. He didn't want anything on paper. The only thing I had on tape was a Christmas song from the Radio City Music Hall spectacular. So I took a big chance and wrote two lyrics for Pimpernel and sent them with my fingers crossed. He loved them, and within a few months he persuaded everyone involved that I should be the lyricist."
When it came time to write the show's libretto, Knighton took her inspiration from the Baroness's book, but she decided to go the book one better. "I wanted to use her book as a framework," she says, "and make everything bigger than life, more exciting for the stage."
The book, she says, has "three infinitely fascinating characters. There's Sir Percy, who's the original Clark Kent-Superman. The Baroness tells us he's a complex character, but she doesn't tell us how he became the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the show the audience finds out why Sir Percy decided to take on that role, to save so many lives. The Baroness tells us Marguerite was an actress with the Comedie Francaise, but in the book nothing ever comes of it. So I decided to show the audience Marguerite as an actress. And I also decided to make Chauvelin a little more complex. In the book he is rapacious toward Marguerite. So I made him a past lover. No villain is interesting unless there's ambivalence, something in him that was good. I made Chauvelin very sexy, a man struggling to remember his original dream and ideals. I want the women in the audience to be drawn to him despite themselves."
But Knighton says what she most wants is for the audience to have fun. "We let the audience know early on we're going to give them a happy ending," she says. "We want them to know they're going to leave the theatre feeling good. And that's a nice thing to do."