How does an American composer write a score for a new musical when the libretto and the lyrics are in Dutch?
In the case of the new Dutch musical, Grace, about the late American actress and Monaco princess, Grace Kelly, which had its premiere in Amsterdam in October 2001, Tony Award-winning composer Cy Coleman said he worked the same way you do when everyone speaks the same language. It's all about craft and story, Coleman told Playbill On-line.
With Dutch lyricist-librettist Seth Gaaikema, Coleman worked long-distance and in-person in meetings overseas or in New York.
"Before we even got started, we had to discuss the subtext of the musical, the emotional line, which is what I do and what the lyricist does," Coleman said. "We had to decide what kind of score we're going to have to do. A lot of that was determined by the fact that they cast it before the show was written, which is amazing to me. They have to do that in Holland, they told me, because if you want some stars, there's a limited talent pool."
Producer Bert Maas, whose dream it was to create a musical about Grace Kelly, snagged Dutch stars Joke de Kruijf and Ernst Daniel Smid, to play Kelly and Monaco's Prince Rainier, respectively, and Rob van de Meeberg as film director Hitchcock. "When I heard Ernst's voice and Joke's voice, and Rob's, I realized I'm gonna have to write big music," Coleman said. "These are not small voices. Musically, I wanted to do a meld of European style and American style — the European feeling along with American pizzazz. That fascinated me. The way we worked, we would talk about what the emotional purpose was, what the emotional point was, and I would either compose something and start it, or then when he had some ideas I would say, 'Tell it to me in Dutch.' I asked him to pronounce the rhythmics, how they would say it rhythmically. So then I would get four or five lines and set those and use that as a base for constructing the rest of the song. Ernst's big number over there was constructed in just that way. Part of the thing with Dutch, it ends with a lot feminine rhymes, there's always double syllables. For the sake of the music, I had to push him into more masculine rhymes sometimes — I wanted to just end on a note."
The melodies will be preserved for the English language version, Coleman said, and there is producer interest in the show, but no plans yet for Broadway or London. The show, which continues its open-ended run at the Grace Theatre (built especially for the musical) "was an even bigger challenge than you might think. [Choreographer] Pat [Birch] and I were working with a director that had never done a musical."
What's the next step toward an English language librettist and lyricist?
"I want to get somebody of worth who can give us an English version with a real psychological story, and have some humor," Coleman said. "Somebody who can write. I have a few names but I don't want to mention them right now. There are people I am thinking about for lyrics, too. Marilyn and Alan Bergman have expressed interest in it."
How was the Tony Award-winning composer of City of Angels, Barnum, On the 20th Century and Sweet Charity approached to write a Dutch musical about international American-born icon Kelly?
"The pitch that was made to me was this," Coleman told. "They came to see me in London and they said they had a musical about Grace Kelly. I'm always of the opinion that it's not what you do, but the way that you do it. So I said, 'What about Grace Kelly?' They said it was Hitchcock's version of her life. That immediately sparked my imagination. And the show takes place in Hitchcock's sound stage, and everything grows out of that — Monaco and all that. It has some dark tones. It's not just the Royal Family in Monaco. It's about the nouveau riche of the Kellys as opposed to the old aristocracy."
There is hope that Princess Grace will sing on Broadway, the Dutch producer of Grace, the Musical, told Playbill On-Line.
For now, Bert Maas said, the unique collaboration between Coleman and lyricist-librettist Gaaikema will continue its open ended Dutch-language run at the Grace Theatre in Amsterdam. Maas hopes the musical will become an international franchise along the lines of Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, and said that if there is a Broadway production it would include new collaborators to write and English-language book and English lyrics to Coleman's music. Maas said there is interest from producers in Japan, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere, and he hopes it plays on Coleman's home turf, Broadway.
The show opened Oct. 25, 2001, and has a lot of Broadway talent involved. Maas said he knew Americans create the best musicals, so he sought U.S. artists when putting Grace together over the past year. Don Sebesky (a Tony Award winner for Kiss Me, Kate) is the orchestrator, Patricia Birch (Parade) is the choreographer and Eugene Lee (Sweeney Todd, Ragtime) is the set designer. (Rien Bekkers is the costume designer, Frans Weisz is the director.)
The show came together very quickly between 2000-2001, although the idea for a Grace musical was pitched to Maas as early as 1995. It wasn't until Gaaikema came up with the idea of a kind of creative love triangle for the show's plot that Maas knew there was musical potential for the subject of American film actress Grace Kelly, who would marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. The fictionalized plot has director Alfred Hitchcock wooing Kelly back to Hollywood, and her being torn between two kingdoms and two forms of royalty — Hitchcock and Rainier. Coleman says Kelly's father is also a major force in the musical.
Coleman and Gaaikema worked together by long distance, with occasional visits to each other's home country. Maas said the show is a traditional book musical in the Broadway tradition.
Maas, a real estate developer with a passion for the theatre, has been a lifelong fan of the late Kelly, whose fairytale story made her an American Cinderella of the 20th century, "I always admired her movies," Maas said by phone from the Netherlands. "I always admired the way she brought Monaco out of a slump. Every year we went on holiday there...she came on the scene, and all of the sudden you saw Monaco climbing out of its poorness and sadness."
Because of a lack of theatre availability in Holland, Maas constructed the Grace Theatre and adorned the interior with murals showing the palace of Monaco.
For more information about Grace, the Musical, check out the website at gracethemusical.nl.
— By Kenneth Jones