Little Mary Sunshine, the beloved 1959 Off-Broadway musical that pays comic homage to silent-era film romances and operettas — the kind in which Colorado forest rangers fall in love with kindly innkeepers — may get its Broadway premiere in a newly-fashioned staging in 2003-2004.
John Hiller, Sarah Rice and Paul Jackel are producing partners in Madjalook Productions, and hold the Broadway rights to the musical comedy written by the late lyricist-librettist-composer Ric Besoyan. The show is designed as a vehicle for Rice, who starred as Johanna in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. She would play the title character, Mary Potts, who falls in love with Capt. Big Jim Warington in the Rockies, during a time when Indians were still a threat.
Hiller and Rice, who are married, told Playbill On-Line that John McMartin (who appeared as Cpl. Billy Jester in the original), Alison Fraser, Richard White and Eileen Brennan (the original Mary Potts) have all expressed interest in appearing in the production. The producers are currently working on capitalization for the $10 million show.
"Eileen Brennan is 100 percent committed to the project," Rice told Playbill On-Line, saying Brennan would play Mme. Ernestine Von Liebedich, the opera-singer who falls for Gen. Oscar Fairfax. Hiller said like all aborning projects in which the money is not yet in place, there are no deals yet for a cast or creative team, but the planned production's official website www.littlemarysunshine-bway.com mentions a proposed team, including director Jamie Rocco and musical director Rob Fisher.
The musical opened at Off-Broadway's Orpheum Theatre in 1959 and played 1,143 performances. The original two-piano arrangement was expanded for orchestra for a cast album. Orchestrations are by Arnold Goland. Hiller told Playbill On Line a full orchestra of 26 is part of the budget for the new production, which will have a cast of 22. The book of the show has been tweaked to make references to Native Americans more politically correct, Hiller said. A villainous character named Yellowfeather is interested in Mary.
"There are good guys and bad guys in this: The bad guy is a Native American, called Yellowfeather," Hiller said. "The Besoyan estate that controls the rights put a change in the script. All the fake 'Indian-speak' has been taken out."
A member of the Lakota Tribe was consulted on changes in the script.
The story takes place in a 24-hour period in which the characters all fall in love, in the Rocky Mountains. The visual concept for the show is 1900-era art nouveau, a world of Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tifffany, Rice said. Howard Barker (the show's original designer and co-producer) is attached a scenic designer.
Madjalook is in negotiations with a creative team, Hiller said. The idea for reviving the show for a major production was Rice's. She said she has loved the show for years, since she performed it as a teenager in a church production.
The show's presence in the regional, school and amateur market is not small. "The market is seeded," Hiller said. "There have been tens of thousands of productions. This is a proven property."
A Broadway house of about 1400 seats is on the wish list and an out of town regional tryout is possible, Hiller said. A New York reading will be held to lure individual money people (there are already some corporate interests in the production, Hiller said.)
Rice, an opera and musical theatre soprano who wowed Broadway with her Johanna in Sweeney Todd in 1979, avoided the word "operetta" and "spoof" when discussing Little Mary Sunshine, but with song titles such as "Do You Ever Dream of Vienna?," "In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Ezzenzook Zee" and "Colorado Love Call," Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy can't be too far away.
"What Little Mary is — it's really about icons, certain archetypes," Rice said. "If you look at the silent movies, there's the impossibly pure heroine who was embodied by people like Mary Pickford...and the impossibly handsome, virile leading man..."
But, she said, "The thing with the piece is, you can't do it 'camp.' We are definitely not going the camp route. People take the show on two levels: There will be some people who understand the humor and some who take the show as it is — people who never saw Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy [movies] love the show!"
Rice said the show will offer actors to opportunity to be special, and to exhibit personalities, like in the old days.
"The thing that has distressed me about Broadway for the last 10 years is that there were huge productions with cookie-cutter performances — personalities were not allowed to emerge," Rice observed. "It's been very frustrating to see that. We wanted to allow off center personalities to emerge. Alison Fraser is a wonderful off-center personality."
According to this production's official Little Mary Sunshine website, Besoyan's "theatrical works, Off Broadway and on Broadway, were small in number—just three musicals and one cabaret revue. However...Little Mary Sunshine...has had, at last count, more than a hundred thousand showings in all 50 of the United States and 30 foreign countries."
Besoyan's credits include the night club revue, In Your Hat, which sowed the seeds of Little Mary Sunshine. He followed Little Mary with The Student Gypsy, or The Prince of Liederkranz (Broadway) and Babes in the Wood (Off-Broadway).
At the time of his death, he had completed a full-scale musical version of Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris. It was never produced, according to the website.
— By Kenneth Jones