Although there have been stage productions of the fictional biographical movie musical in the past (Tommy Steele in London, a 2001 dark version in San Francisco starring John Glover and licensed stock and amateur versions), Yeston told Playbill On-Line "it's really sort of surprising that we have never seen a wonderful translation to the stage." Yeston, who has known Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, for years, calls his work on the project "a labor of love" and the entire score will be Loesser's, including interpolations from the late composer-lyricist's catalog. Yeston is billed as librettist and musical arranger adapter. (Unlike his work on Grand Hotel, for which his songs were added to a score by George Forrest and Robert Wright, Yeston promises he is not adding his own music or lyrics to the Loesser show.)
Yeston, whose Nine gets a Broadway revival in spring 2003, will see Hans Christian Andersen debut far from New York City — at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, ME, June 4-21, for a three-week run that kicks off the season up there. MSMT artistic director Charles Abbott, who staged the world premiere of Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Phantom at Theatre Under the Stars in Texas, will helm the world premiere of Hans Christian Andersen, with a cast to be announced and a star name.
"I think the score to 'Hans Christian Andersen,' as performed by Danny Kaye in that movie is one of the treasures of the American musical theatre," Yeston told Playbill On-Line. "In order to [adapt it successfully for the stage], it requires the skills not of an arranger and not of an adapter but actually of a Broadway composer. If you look at the movie carefully, everything is written for one character, and therefore there needs to be found a way for that score to be sung by a cast: Some things have to be sung by solo women, there need to be duets, there need to be company numbers. It required the sort of attitude of a composer to say, 'Let's suppose I had written that score for that movie. Let's suppose I need to adapt that for a Broadway show. How would I structure the story and these songs so they can become motivated dramatically?' That was the task."
Does Yeston, who makes his librettist debut with the show, do away with the film story?
"Yes, it's a new story far more realistic and far more about Hans Christian Andersen," Yeston explained. "Although, of course, it takes place in Denmark and involves the ballet [as they film does] because the Royal Danish Ballet was founded in Copenhagen around 1835. It still involves Hans Christian Andersen and a ballerina in the Royal Danish Ballet, but it's a new story, and far closer to the actual biographical details of Hans Christian Andersen. This is about young Andersen struggling as a writer, to write novel and plays and stories." Songs from the popular film will be heard — "Wonderful Copenhagen," "The Ugly Duckling," "Thumbelina," "Anywhere I Wander," "No Two People," "I'm Hans Christian Andersen," "Inchworm" — as will Loesser interpolations Yeston was reluctant to reveal. (MSMT's website says "Baby, It's Cold Outside" will be added.)
"The reason we're going to Maine is so that people like you won't know about it and won't say anything to anybody, because, y'know, it's a tryout !" Yeston said, with a touch humor. "We don't want it to be reviewed nationally. We're developing it quietly."
Why did Yeston, who won Best Score Tonys for both Nine and Titanic, want to explore Hans Christian Andersen?
"I always loved it," he said. "Jo Sullivan Loesser asked me to take a look at it. There's no reason in the world why I would write a show with a score by anybody but me because that's what I do — I write my own scores. This has been a labor of love to me. It occurred to me that a brand new story, with that score — and also with additional Loesser songs from the Loesser songbook — could be not only a great celebration of Hans Christian Andersen and of that glorious score but also of Frank Loesser. To me, that's the attraction."
Visit the Maine State Music Theatre website at www.msmt.org.