Lyricist-librettist Mark Waldrop (When Pigs Fly, Whoop Dee-Doo) and composer Brad Ross (Little by Little) will see their new Isaac Bashevis Singer-based musical, Luck!, get a reading at Northlight Theatre in the Chicago area Feb. 25-28.
Previously called Mazel & Shlimazel, the musical comedy draws on the story, "The Milk of a Lioness," and is a kind of fairy tale in which the spirits of good luck and bad luck wager that each will triumph in the life of "a woebegone young man, bereft of hope and down on his luck," according to composer Ross.
Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones became aware of the piece after reading a brief item about the project on Playbill On-Line in October 1999. Within an hour of the story being posted, the Northlight contacted PBOL and tracked down Ross and Waldrop, asking for a script.
Just four months later, Feb. 25-28 rehearsals leading to a Feb 28 evening reading, with Waldrop directing a cast of Chicago actors and Ross musical-directing, is a reality thanks to a $10,000 BWF Grant from the Weisslers. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler's foundation gives the grant out; they are not attached to the project. New York producer Jonathan Pollard (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Over the River and Through the Woods) is already attached to Luck!
Northlight's 10,000 subscribers are invited to hear the piece, B.J. Jones told Playbill On-Line. Although the reading is no guarantee of a future staging at Northlight, Jones said there are multiple goals with the event: to hear the show, test audience reaction, develop a relationship with the authors, continue the theatre's mission to be a part of the process of new works, and to give Chicago actors the chance to work on a new musical. Jones said he was attracted to the fairy-tale quality of the piece, and thought it might play well to a family audience, perhaps in a holiday slot on Northlight's schedule.
Northlight operates in an intimate theatre and in an 850-seat house in Skokie, IL. "Nothing would make me happier than doing a new musical in the big theatre," Jones said. Naturally, he and his staff are exploring many programming possibilities.
"We've never had the luxury of having other people singing the songs, except on the demo," said lyricist-librettist Waldrop. "This is first chance to see these characters talking and singing. When we did earlier readings, we had people reading the dialogue cold. We'll find out how it all lives and breathes."
Ross, whose Little by Little was presented in 1998-99 by the York Theatre Company (and subsequently recorded), told Playbill On-Line that the short story sang to him when he first read it. "This thing captivated me from the get-go," he said. He brought the idea to Waldrop.
"It's a children's story," said Waldrop. "I thought it had really interesting characters, or the seeds of interesting characters, and I thought it was a world that was a little different than any other."
Is it a fairy tale?
"It's a folk-tale world, which is a little cruder, a little rougher," said Waldrop. "It's about luck -- Good Luck and Bad Luck, and they are personified in the story as charming, humorous characters. They make a bet with each other to prove who is more powerful."
Ross, who also wrote The Times, said, "The lesson is ultimately about making your own luck." He added that the Bad Luck character, Shlimazel, has some "awfully entertaining numbers."
A princess, a castle and rising fortunes are part of the script, meant for seven principals and an ensemble.
In a production note to the script, Waldrop suggests a fanciful, imagination-stirring staging with puppetry, shadows, masks, dance, flying and more: Think Once on This Island crossed with Julie Taymor's Lion King and Juan Darien, Waldrop's note says.
Waldrop recently directed Bette Midler's 1999-2000 concert show and will stage the world premiere of Adventures in Love at the Ordway in Minneapolis in spring.
The folky Singer property had previously intrigued Sheldon Harnick and Burton Lane, who once held the stage musical rights to the story.
"Some of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories are very Jewish," Waldrop noted. "This is not so specifically Jewish, it's more folk tale. We're trying to honor Singer, but keep it very universal."
How do you get a full-length show out of a lean short story?
"In some musical adaptations, the challenge is that you have to reduce a complex novel down to a length that can be musicalized," said Waldrop. "With this, it's the opposite: We're taking a slim little story and we're adding secondary characters and subplots and enough new material to round it out to a full evening of theatre."
The cast for the reading includes Paul Alessandro, Kristen Behrendt, Jim Fitzgerald, Carol Kuykendall, Iris Lieberman, Roger Mueller, Robin Payne, Sam Samuelson, Paul Slade Smith and Jonathan Weir.
The musical Luck! is not to be confused by Chicago playwright Sean Grennan's non-musical comedy, Luck, which had an industry reading in Manhattan Dec. 13, 1999, and a reading in Chicago before that. The comedy, about a chain letter upsetting the lives of a group of people, is under consideration by a Windy City company, according to the playwright. Coincidentally, Paul Slade Smith appeared in the Grennan Luck and will sing in the tuner Luck!
-- By Kenneth Jones