NEWS FROM THE ROAD
Director Harold Prince and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber looked as if they had been lobbed a hand grenade when the first question asked at a press conference for their new multi-million dollar musical, Whistle Down the Wind was whether they thought they had a "sure-fire hit" on their hands.
"Let's just say that we're happy to be working together again," said Harold Prince. Indeed, the most highly-anticipated musical of the season from the duo who brought us The Phantom of the Opera and Evita began its first day of rehearsals at a downtown studio with the entire cast and creative team on hand to meet the press. That included stars Davis Gaines (Phantom) and newcomer Irene Molloy as well as book writer Patricia Knop and lyricist Jim Steinman (Bat Out of Hell) who worked with Lloyd Webber on this new musical about an escaped convict whom impoverished children mistake for Christ.
The show has its world premiere in Washington, D.C., Dec. 12 and opens on Broadway April 17 at the Martin Beck Theatre. This will be the first world premiere of a Lloyd Webber musical outside England since Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971. "I'm very excited and happy at having the world premiere of Whistle Down the Wind in the United States," said the extraordinarily successful and rich composer. "The musical is an American story, and it's appropriate that it opens here first."
In fact, Whistle Down the Wind is a British story, based as it is on the original novel by Mary Hayley Bell (mother of juvenile star Hayley Mills), which was then made into a 1961 dramatic film produced by Richard Attenborough and directed by Bryan Forbes. For the musicalization, the British locale of the movie has been changed to the impoverished Louisiana backwater, which Lloyd Webber said put him in "Tennessee Williams's Southern Gothic territory." This, he said, gave him a chance to compose a score using harmonica, banjo and steel guitar in the orchestrations of some of the songs, which run the gamut from rock to opera to vintage B'way. The change of venue, he added, was the factor that made the project jell for him.: "I could see it in my head. I'm very visually oriented."
The musical had actually been developed as an original film project initially, hence the involvement of Knop who has never before written a book musical but who, with her husband Zalman King, is the author of a number of screenplays (9 1/2 Weeks, Wild Orchid). However, as is his wont, Lloyd Webber presented a concert of the songs in July of 1995 as part of the Syndmonton Arts Festival, which he sponsors in Great Britain. "Everybody told me what you have here is a stage musical," he recalled. "Then I sent the tape to Hal [Prince], and he wrote back and told me that what I had here was a stage musical. And that clinched it."
Despite the fact that there will be a locomotive and trestles crashing about onstage, Prince insisted the show whose budget producer Edgar Dobie refused to divulge would not be "a spectacle." "It's just a solid simple story about faith, spirituality and redemption," he said.
-- By Patrick Pacheco