The Unprecedented Story of How 3 Versions of 1 Musical Played Broadway for 2 Years

Interview   The Unprecedented Story of How 3 Versions of 1 Musical Played Broadway for 2 Years
 
The Scarlet Pimpernel turned 20 this year—that is, its third and final revision did. Inside the crazy story of the Broadway show that opened in 1997 and changed nearly every day for two years.
Douglas Sills, Rachel York, and Rex Smith
Douglas Sills, Rachel York, and Rex Smith Joan Marcus

The Scarlett Pimpernel, with music by Frank Wildhorn and a book and lyrics by Nan Knighton, made its Broadway bow at the Minskoff Theatre on October 7, 1997, and what happened over the course of the next three years was unprecedented: the show brought in a new director, new producers and underwent two major re-mountings—the first resulted in a much-changed Version 2.0 re-opening November 1998 at the Minskoff, and then yet another revision with Scarlett Pimpernel 3.0 in the Neil Simon Theatre in 1999.

The Scarlet Pimpernel follows Sir Percy Blakeney, an English nobleman during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. He and his French wife Marguerite St. Just marry before Percy discovers that his friend has been executed due to Marguerite’s betrayal of information. He decides to lead a group of fellow Englishman to France to rescue other victims from the guillotine disguised as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile Chauvelin, a fanatical agent of the French republican revolutionaries, is tasked with discovering who the Pimpernel truly is. The rich soundtrack included favorites such as “You Are My Home,” “She Was There” and “Into the Fire,” the latter which was performed by Sills and company during the Tony Awards. With plenty of romance, adventure, and intrigue, the story had people invested.

Directed by Peter H. Hunt, the original 1997 production starred Douglas Sills (Sir Percy Blakeney), Christine Andreas (Marguerite St. Just), and Terrance Mann (Citizen Chauvelin). The production was nominated for three Tony Awards—Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and a nom for Sills as Leading Actor in a Musical—but it came away empty-handed.

Most thought that was the death knell for the show. But in 1998, Madison Square Garden Productions became its new producer, and the show re-opened at the Minskoff with Sills back as Blakeney and two new leads: Rex Smith (Chauvelin) and Rachel York (Marguerite). That show finished its run in the summer of 1999. A U.S. tour ran that summer., Then the production was scaled down to Version 3.0, which opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on September 7, 1999 with Ron Bohmer (Blakeney), Marc Kudisch (Chauvelin) and Carolee Carmello (Marguerite) as the new leads.

The evolution of The Scarlet Pimpernel was a fascinating chapter in Broadway history. These bizarre resurrections made it strange, but some of the happiest times for those involved, and—to date—no other Broadway show has experienced such live re-writes.

Here, Wildhorn and Knighton, and leading cast members from all three versions give us the inside scoop and the oral history of an unprecedented and singular process behind the simultaneously problematic and triumphant musical.

Building the Team
Frank Wildhorn: I was first approached to write this in 1989 [by James Nederlander Sr., who owned the rights to the novel at the time] and I was presented with lyrics from Nan, and I loved them so much. We had done a pre-concert recording [of the songs] and had a Top 10 contemporary hit with my ex-wife Linda Eder and Peabo Bryson called “You Are My Home.” The problem was a single of “Beauty and the Beast” also featuring Peabo came out at the time, and radio stations made the choice to play Disney. Kathleen Raitt played the album for producers and convinced them to come aboard the show. Without the recording, they would have never done it. While they were searching for a book writer, Nan decided to write it and she wrote a brilliant and funny, witty book and so she became both the book writer and lyricist and off we went.

Nan Knighton: I was unknown at that point. After a great many people had tried with the book, I knew what it should be, so I sat down one weekend writing and 10 days later showed it to Frank. I was approved as the book writer, which was a really exciting moment for me.

Finding the Cast
Douglas Sills (Percy, Versions 1&2): I had not long before told my agent I was done acting and said not to send me out anymore. I grew bored of the roles coming down the pike and what I saw my career looking like. I wanted more intellectual challenge and deeper work. I thought about going back to school and it was time for me to make a change. Soon after, my agent called and said, ‘I know you’re done, but here’s this play I think you should look at.’ I had a strong memory of the movie from seeing it as a kid, and I agreed to give it a shot.

Wildhorn: During auditions, out of nowhere came Mr. Handsome, Doug Sills, who auditioned first in California singing “Someone Like You” from Jekyll and Hyde, claiming to this day that he didn’t know it was written for a girl. And he beat everyone and got the part.

Terrence MannThe Scarlet Pimpernel_Production_Photo_Terrance Mann_HR.jpg
Terrence Mann in The Scarlet Pimpernel Joan Marcus

Sills: I didn’t know it was sung by a woman—there was no pronoun in it. They put me through the ringer, six to seven auditions. They wanted Kevin Kline or a name. It was so exhausting and stressful, and I was about done when they called and told me I got it.

Terrence Mann (Chauvelin Version 1): Frank had asked me to do it. I had done the pre-Broadway of [his] Jekyll and Hyde, and we had wanted to work together, so it was as simple as that.

Elizabeth Ward Land (Marie, Versions 1, 2, 3): I did the original reading and am the only person who went from the beginning all the way to the end of the Broadway production. The version we first did was very similar to the one we had been workshopping.

Mann: We were rehearsing at the School of America Ballet Studios at Lincoln Center on the fifth floor in various big dance studios and I was impressed by this talented company. All the guys were such characters and so different. I remember Doug Sills being a fearless leader and having energy for days and being hysterically funny. There were a lot of creative impulses flying around and it was organized chaos.

Making a Change for 2.0
Mann: It was a great period story of panache and intrigue and mystery and love and romance and it has everything you want in a big epic historical and romantic musical. The music and the way Frank tells the story is so powerful and passionate and practically Shakespearean. We thought it would be a hit.

Knighton: After the initial reviews, a lot of us were crying—especially me. I couldn’t believe it. I felt the material was good so I didn’t understand. But the people really loved it. You would see them standing in the TKTS line talking about the show. The buzz was incredible.

Sills: I knew the show had not been well received. The critics had been very nice to me and I felt a responsibility to try and keep the show running for the sake of everyone else who had invested in it metaphorically.

Ward Land: This was the year of Ragtime, The Lion King, and Cabaret, so by the summer of ’98, by all accounts we would be closing. But instead of closing, MSG got involved and bought the show, replaced the director [Peter Hunt] with Robert Longbottom, and all of a sudden, we were on our way to 2.0. My husband was also in the cast and we had planned our wedding for July of ’98 because we were told we would be closing. Instead, it kept going and we couldn’t get the time off, so we had to do a matinee on our wedding day! Douglas stopped the curtain call and brought out a glass wrapped in a napkin and stomped on the glass and had entire audience say “Mazel Tov,” and we’re still married so it must have worked.

Knight: The new version [2.0] was created mostly out of material that was already there—a lot of it rewritten, pared down and rearranged and reimagined by Robert, our new director and choreographer.

Sills: David Checketts of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks was running the organization and had asked me to stay on and told me their plans. I was exhausted and said ‘I don’t see what the upside is. I have already leapt through fire and come out ok, I have nowhere to go but down.’ I could see newspapers saying, ‘Sills should have quit while he was ahead.’ So, I declined and they went to look for someone else.

Christine Andreas and Douglas Sills in <i>The Scarlet Pimpernel</i>
Christine Andreas and Douglas Sills in The Scarlet Pimpernel Joan Marcus

Ron Bohmer (Percy in 3.0): I had finished up my run in the tour of Phantom, and came back to New York and my whole life was changing. I was going through a divorce and moving out of my house and there was just a lot of turmoil. In the midst of all that, I got called in for Pimpernel. I had seen version 1, and I didn’t walk away thinking there was any role for me, so I was surprised when I got called in for Percy to do version 2.0. I was even more surprised when I got there because they had some celebrities they were interested in. I had a callback at the Minskoff, and I was offered the show on the spot. But then, strangeness occurred.

Sills: They came back to me again and told me their new plans, and I told them what it would take to keep me, and much to my surprise and delight, they said okay. I took a little time off—I went somewhere sunny for a week—and I came back to rehearse the revamped book and changed music with different actors playing the other two lead roles, and a lot of different people in the ensemble.

Bohmer: I still didn’t know what was happening. Everything went quiet. So, even though I was verbally offered the role, Douglas stayed and I was out. Two days later, I got a FedEx from MSG with a Knicks jacket in it.

Rex Smith (Chauvelin, 2.0): My agent had put me up for a Saturday TV show and I turned it down and the agency called and told me they were dropping me. So, my wife became my manager for a day, and she had heard they were renovating this show, so she called and acted as my manager, and I was pretending to be her assistant. I took the red-eye to New York, went into the audition, and Ben Vereen was auditioning. They asked me to sing “Madame Guillotine” and when I got off the stage, Ben was hanging around and said, “I guess that’s the end of that.” I went and got three slices of pizza and headed back to the airport. They made me an offer, and it was a damn good offer.

Sills: These two wonderful actors—Christine and Terrance—were not being asked back for 2.0 and that was awkward. I loved them, they were responsible for the success of the show and my success, but they were wonderful about it.

Ward Land: It was a complete restructuring of how the songs fell in the show and how they functioned. The narrative was the same, but the way we got there was different. For example, in Version 1, there was a big number in the prison called “You are My Home” and in Version 2, that became the song that Percy and Marguerite got married to very early in Act 1.

Wildhorn: It was wild, wacky, and crazy. There were so many people involved and then not involved. And [our new director] Longbottom was making changes and so those still involved had to keep the two versions separated.

Ward Land: We were doing Version 1 at night and rehearsing Version 2 during the day, and it was getting quite confusing—especially for Douglas who had all these changes, and he had to remember not to do them at night.

Sills: One time, I messed up. I had rehearsed all day a song that had been significantly changed and I had to do the old version that night and I got lost. My brain short circuited and it was embarrassing and scary and it was one of those freakout moments. And it was exhausting trying to juggle relationships in the old version with those in the new version. We had a new director with a new approach who would take something you had fallen in love with and he would want me to do it differently. That was challenging but we weathered it.

Real Estate Troubles
Sills: During preview week of 2.0, Mr. Longbottom had invited all of Broadway to come and everyone was interested to see what we did. I had no voice and I knew I couldn’t do it. It was a very demanding role, very rangy, extremely high, and difficult on my voice, and I saw that Longbottom was freaking out. I went out and owned it. I went on stage in my bathrobe and said, “Forgive me, I just can’t do the show tonight” and everyone thought I was kidding. I said, “We are so proud of what we created and the show is even better than what it was and we’re excited for you all to see it, but this is my failing and no indication of our eagerness to perform it in front of you.” A week later, the New York Times really loved the show.

Smith: We took over Sardi’s opening night, all three floors, and we’re waiting for the New York Times to come out and Mann got on the table and said, “This is terrific” and everyone roared. It was just on-point and I think had this been the version that opened originally, it would have run for years.

Wildhorn: I got my only decent New York Times review that night. We started doing great, but then we had to leave the Minskoff because they made a deal with Saturday Night Fever that they could have the theatre when they were ready.

The Birth of 3.0
Bohmer: The show was going to close, but then they announced it would go on a short tour and re-open at the Neil Simon theatre with another new version, and my agent calls me and told me they were interested in me again. They wanted me to come back and audition. It was a dilemma. Pride is one thing, but I asked myself, “What do you want the arc of your career to look like?” This was a fantastic role and I knew Douglas was beloved, and I knew it’s like going down the rabbit hole when you try to replace someone like that. But in the end, I looked at the role, and I jumped through the hoops.

Ward Land: We had a large cast for Version 1 and 2, and the plan was to eliminate eight tracks for Version 3, so we needed to shut down the show for a while so Equity would approve of the cast cuts. During this time, it was reworked again, and we did it in Dallas and Atlanta.

Wildhorn: We had Marc Kudisch, another Mr. Handsome.

Bohmer: I had incredible co-stars. Marc, who was just about the best villain you could ever have a swordfight with, and Carolee Carmello, who I could sit in an audience and watch her read a phonebook, so I was delighted to star opposite her. It was the only show I ever did where I used everything I learned in college. I saw it out until the end of New York and this remains one of the more bizarre chapters in my theatre career. It was a fascinating experience because it was the show that wouldn’t die.

The First Fan-Fueled Show
Ward Land: It was the beginning of the internet fan clubs. By ’97, people were starting to link up in these computer groups and it was incredible to watch these fans find their power. They loved the show despite what the critics said and kept coming in droves. They would wear costumes and wait for us afterwards and they knew everything about the actors. Now every show has these superfans, but we were one of the first.

Bohmer: The show’s fan base really pushed to keep this show alive. Of course they loved Douglas, but not unlike Dr. Who fans, they embraced me with open arms. It was amazing to have this existing fan base who loved me and welcomed me and made me feel right at home.

TheScarletPimpernel-PlanetHollywood-FrankWildhorn-NanKnighton-GabrielBarre-HR-24.jpg
Frank Wildhorn, Nan Knighton, and Gabriel Barre Bruce Glikas

Knighton: We would meet people all the time who said they saw it five, 10, 20 times. I met one woman who said she had seen it 103 times! People loved it and wanted to keep going back.

Wildhorn: We had the original pre-cast record, a cast album, and then when the cast changed for 2.0, there was such demand from the fans that we made a third recording with Rex Smith and Rachel York. I loved that.

Fond Memories
Sills: This was a career-changing event in my personal life and professional life. I got a Tony nomination and my parents were able to attend, and so many of my dreams came true thanks to this wonderful show.

Smith: Doug was the greatest adlibber since Milton Berle. My character wears all black and one time, my clothes weren’t there, so I just went out in a shirt, and it was Doug’s chance to roast Chauvelin to the delight of the audience. It was a slow burn for me. I was open game because he has a rapier wit and it certainly came out.

Wildhorn: I think Doug’s Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the greatest performances in theatre. It hits every button. A leading man, romantic, heroic, and funny as hell.

Ward Land: It was four really fun years of my life. A lot of us have stayed friends—even the company managers and stage managers. When you’re in the trenches like that, it really bonds you. I’ll never forget it.

Wildhorn: We had to overcome a lot, but we did and it’s a wonderful story and great friendships were made.

Knighton: The irony of it now is that people think of it as a hit and it’s done all around the world. Everybody forgot—except me in my heart—that the reviews were awful, but everything turned out well in the end.

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
 
Recommended Reading: