Julian Ovenden's Reaper Has a Song in His Heart in Death Takes a Holiday, Premiering in NYC

By Kenneth Jones
June 10, 2011

The question of why mortals cling so passionately to life hangs in the air of the new musical Death Takes a Holiday, starting a world-premiere Off-Broadway engagement June 10. The songs of Tony Award winner Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic) caress that query, made by the Grim Reaper himself.



The life-loving friends, family and lovers of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre include British actor Julian Ovenden as Death, in a handsome disguise, plus Broadway's Jill Paice as his object of desire, with Max von Essen, Matt Cavenaugh, Simon Jones, Linda Balgord, Rebecca Luker, Michael Siberry and more.

The romantic Italian-set musical is based on the Alberto Casella play of the same name. According to Roundabout, "In Death Takes a Holiday, it's just after the first World War and the loneliest of souls arrives at an Italian villa disguised as a handsome young Prince (played by Ovenden), and for the first time experiences the joys and heartbreaks of life. But when he unexpectedly falls in love with a newly engaged young woman (played by Jill Paice), the mysterious stranger discovers that love may in fact be stronger than death."

The project began as a collaboration between librettist Peter Stone (1776) and composer-lyricist Yeston, but following Stone's 2003 death, Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) joined the project as librettist. Stone and Meehan share book credit on the show.

Tony Award winner Doug Hughes (Doubt, Roundabout's Broadway production of Mrs. Warren's Profession starring Cherry Jones) directs. Opening night is July 21.

In the days leading up to the first preview, Yeston told Playbill.com, "What a joy and a privilege to be about to preview a new musical in New York City, and to do so in front of the greatest, most useful and informative audience in the world — if we have the wisdom to listen to them! Revisiting and refining every element of the show will be our task, and I really look forward to it. And to have had the benefit of the collaborative work of both Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan is more than any composer could ever dream of."

The cast features Linda Balgord (Contessa Danielli), Matt Cavenaugh (Eric Fenton), Mara Davi (Alice), Joy Hermalyn (Cora), Jay Jaski (Lorenzo), Simon Jones (Dr. Dario Albione), Rebecca Luker (Duchess Lamberti), Patricia Noonan (Sophia), Julian Ovenden (Prince Sirki / Death), Jill Paice (Grazia), Michael Siberry (Duke Lamberti), Alexandra Socha (Daisy Fenton), Don Stephenson (Fidele), Max Von Essen (Corrado Montelli).

The creative team includes Kevin Stites (musical direction and supervision), Peter Pucci (choreography), Derek McLane (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lights), Jon Weston (sound) and Tom Watson (hair & wigs).

Death Takes a Holiday plays a limited engagement through Sept. 4.

Ovenden's theatre credits include Merrily We Roll Along, Grand Hotel (Donmar); Annie Get your Your Gun (Young Vic); Marguerite, A Woman of No Importance (Haymarket); King Lear (RSC); Butley on Broadway, plus TV's "Foyle's War," "The Forsyte Saga," "Any Human Heart," "Cashmere Mafia," "Related," "Charmed" and "A Christmas Carol."

Paice starred in Broadway's The Woman in White and Curtains. Ovenden has played roles in London productions of Merrily We Roll Along, Marguerite and Annie Get Your Gun.

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Jill Paice

Casella's play, rewritten for the American stage by Walter Ferris, was originally produced on Broadway by the Shubert brothers during the Great Depression.

Yeston previously said the piece is "an intensely romantic love story — deeply moving and life affirming." He called the show a "chamber musical."

Death tells of the Grim Reaper visiting earth to discover why people are so fearful of him. Or, as Stone once said in a Playbill.com interview, "What can life be that they cling to it so?"

Death becomes a houseguest at a swanky nobleman's home where an engagement is being celebrated. And that's where he falls in love.

"It's very lush and romantic and amusing in many aspects, even though it deals with a somewhat serious subject," Stone previously told Playbill.com.

There have been movie versions of the property, including a 1934 picture starring Fredric March and "Meet Joe Black" (1998), starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.

"Each time they remake it," Stone said of the film versions, "it's farther from the original. We're keeping the locale: Italy, just after the first World War. It's a small musical: 10 principals, all of them important, no chorus." There are four servants in the mix as well, Playbill.com previously reported, bumping the cast size to a relatively intimate 14.

Roundabout previously produced the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine by songwriter Yeston.

Todd Haimes, artistic director of Roundabout, said in a statement, "Maury Yeston and Peter Stone began working on Death Takes a Holiday several years before it came to Roundabout. Peter was one of the great librettists in musical theatre, and, after his death, it was fortunate that Tom Meehan, one of the best in the business, took over the book writing duties. It was in 2008 that Tom and Maury approached me about working on the show at Roundabout, and I suggested Doug Hughes for the project. We ended up doing a series of developmental readings with the team over the past two years, and I think we're all agreed that the show is now absolutely ready to get on its feet..."

Tickets ($76-$86) are on sale now at Roundabout Ticket Services at (212)719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre box office (111 West 46 Street).