The 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday is a beloved classic that earned Audrey Hepburn an Academy Award in her first starring role. In Rome, on a goodwill tour of European countries, Princess Ann feels overwhelmed by her regimented days and nights and sneaks off to experience life unencumbered by royal duties. She meets Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), and they spend the day joyously exploring the city. Ann is unaware that he is a reporter and that he not only knows who she is, but intends to write a story about her Rome adventure. And then they fall in love.
Paul Blake has long been a fan of the movie, and in 2001, in the midst of his 22-year run as executive producer at The Muny in St. Louis, he produced, directed, and wrote a musical version of Roman Holiday, which featured a score comprised of Cole Porter songs. Audience response was positive, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he returned to the piece with a production at the Guthrie Theater, where it played to sold-out crowds. Then he put the show aside once more, this time to take charge as lead producer of Beautiful.
Now it looks like Roman Holiday – The Musical is headed to Broadway. A new version of the show, co-produced by Blake and Mike Bosner, directed by Marc Bruni (Beautiful), and starring Stephanie Styles and Drew Gehling, premiered last month at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, where it runs through June 18. The plan is to bring it to New York in the fall.
The show has a new book, written by Blake, Kathy Speer, and Terry Grossman. “I know a great deal about how to structure a musical,” says Blake, “but I realized I’m not great at dialogue. So I brought in Kathy and Terry, and they’ve been terrific.”
Although the narrative closely adheres to the movie, Blake introduced two new characters in the very first production: a confidante for Ann, and a girlfriend for Irving, Joe’s photographer friend. “I gave Ann a confidante, who is her aunt, because I wanted her to be able to share her feelings with someone,” says Blake. “She doesn’t have that in the movie, so her feelings are all internal. But in a musical, you have to be able to sing about how you feel. I also invented an Italian girlfriend for Irving and made her a singer at a club, because it was a way to add some peppy Porter numbers to the show. They’re songs that would make no sense being sung by the princess and Joe, but you need a range of music.”
Blake chose to go with Porter’s songs, rather than commission a new score, because they were a good fit. “It’s a period piece, and I find that when contemporary composers write for that period, it comes out like pastiche,” he says. “One day, I found myself thinking about the song ‘Easy to Love,’ and if you know the ending of the song, you know why I thought, ‘There’s my 11 o’clock.’ So I approached the Porter estate.” The score also includes such familiar songs as “Just One of Those Things,” “Begin the Beguine,” “You Do Something to Me,” and “Night and Day.”
Aside from the romance of the story and the timelessness of the songs, Blake believes audiences will respond to an additional aspect of the piece. “It’s a show about people who have choices to make,” he says. “They have principles, and they do the right thing. It’s a good story to be telling in this day and age.”