Autumn Canticle, a new dramatic play by John W. Lowell suggested by the lives of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, went into rehearsal Jan. 28 at the Walnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia for an opening there on Feb. 19.
David Ogden Stiers, the actor, is directing the piece, which will star William McCauley as the celebrated composer and William Whitehead as the famed tenor.
Completing the cast (and triangle) is Callum Keith-King, a Philadelphia native playing Britten's young apprentice/secretary/Boswell who comes between these two middle-aged men and forces them to examine their lifelong relationship.
Britten became the preeminent composer of modern opera in the 20th century, writing music which was introduced to the world by his lover/life partner, Pears. Their acclaimed collaborations include Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Death in Venice.
But surprisingly little music is heard in the play that has been written by Lowell, an executive with Music Theatre International. Essentially, it is a serious dramatic work that explores art, music, life and relationships. Ironically, the play is premiering in the same city where Pears and Britten met--as composition majors at the Curtis Institute of Music there. When Pears realized that he was not in the same writing class as Britten, he switched professions to performing--and made his rep originating roles Britten wrote.
The play is set in 1972, decades after their glory days, when the Britten character, recovering from open-heart surgery, learns that his lover has been dallying with the composer's young assistant, thus triggering a confrontation.
McCauley's New York credits include Tamara (as the concert pianist who was really Mussolini's agent) and Hal Prince's Grandchild of King. Whitehead has been active in regional theatre in Denver, Dallas, Cincinnati and Indianapolis and recently performed a New York workshop of his own play, Wendell and Ben.
Depending on the reception, the producers hope to take the play to New York.
-- By Harry Haun