Steven Sater and Burt Bacharach Craft a New Christmas Tune With Some Lovers
By Adam Hetrick
Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening book writer-lyricist Steven Sater and Academy Award-winning composer Burt Bacharach are putting the groove back in Christmas with Some Lovers, the new musical that is currently debuting at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
The ghosts of Christmases past and present come to life in Some Lovers as a couple traces the journey from where love began to where it was lost, while taking a page from O. Henry's holiday-themed parable "The Gift of the Magi." Will Frears directs the world-premiere engagement, which officially opened Dec. 7 for a run through New Year's Eve.
Some Lovers marks Bacharach's first foray back into musical theatre since his 1968 musical Promises, Promises, which introduced audiences to "Knowing When to Leave," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the title song.
For Sater, who grew up listening to Bacharach's music, the project is a lifelong dream. Following his Broadway hit Spring Awakening, co-written with Tony-winning composer Duncan Sheik, Sater was courted by music publishers who asked if there were any other songwriters he'd be interested in writing with.
"I'd say, 'OK, Burt Bacharach,' and they'd say, 'Great, we know Burt. OK, who else?'" Sater laughed. A few months later Sater finally got his wish: a meeting with the legendary hit-maker.
"We had a lovely meeting at his home," Sater recalled, "and as we were getting up to leave, Burt said, 'If you ever have a lyric you want to show me, please [do].' I said, 'Oh, I brought one.'"
Before Sater was out the door, Bacharach was reading the lyrics out loud. "This is good. We've all felt this," Bacharach said. Several weeks later, Bacharach invited Sater back to his home to listen to what he'd been up to. Sater described it as a "beautiful classic Bacharach song. I was ravished by it – it was like reeling back in time. I couldn't believe it was happening to me even as it was happening to me."
It was the beginning of a prolific songwriting partnership that would ultimately bring Bacharach back to writing for the stage. The first notion of a musical collaboration came from Bacharach, who had a dream the two rented a theatre and played all their songs. Sater took it one step further and suggested creating a show together that would showcase the music Bacharach loves best, love songs. The idea stuck.
"It was clear to me it was going to be a love story, but it felt to me that it could be a story about a more mature love," Sater said. "I think it has to do with the way that when I listen to Burt's songs, I'm transported to different times in my life. So, I thought that's what songs can do – time comes back to life. The past opened up into the present when I listened to his songs. That's how it became a memory play and what time does to love."
For this production, Sater first envisioned two pianos facing each other. From that mental picture and with Bacharach melodies in his head, he conceived a story of a composer in his 40's looking back on the young man he was in his 20's.
The O. Henry tale "The Gift of the Magi" provides a touchstone for the characters of Molly and Ben, the couple in Some Lovers who are played by two sets of actors in the early stages of their relationship and later in life as they reflect back. Jenni Barber and Andrew Mueller inhabit the younger couple, with Jason Danieley and Michelle Duffy as the adults.
"These two lovers meet on Christmas Eve, and her favorite story is 'The Gift of the Magi.' As they spend time together over the years, they have a ritual. They stay at the Plaza, they read each other the story and they give the gift that will mean the world to each other. The whole play is about giving the part of yourself that you hold most dear: the challenge of that," Sater said.
Creating the score was a labor of love for the collaborators. The approach has been Sater's lyrics first, with Bacharach taking the sheet to the piano to craft a melody. In Bacharach, Sater found a kindred spirit, who he admiringly describes as a "relentless perfectionist." Conversations poured out over the use of the word "that" in a verse, while Bacharach would play endless variations on the bridge for a new song, ultimately inspiring Sater to pen a new lyric.
"I hear his music [and] it prompts a different feeling, so I write quickly. It's a very swift back and forth," Sater said of their time at the piano. "This Christmas," a song featured in Some Lovers, was written in the heat of July at Bacharach's home. Sater recalled, "Every time he did something new musically, I came up with new lyrics. It brings me tremendous joy. Burt will say, 'You're so patient, Carol [Bayer Sager] would have killed me!"
Like the characters in Some Lovers, music brings the past to life for the authors as well. "It's like time regained for me too," Sater reflected. "To grow up loving Burt's music as I did and then to be able to work with him has been such a joy. He's a remarkable partner."
Some Lovers continues its holiday romance through Dec. 31. Sater and Bacharach are hopeful the intimate musical will find future life beyond its Old Globe debut.
For now, we can enjoy new holiday tunes with that insistent, unmistakable Bacharach groove and new lyrics from Sater right here.
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