In the classic Mel Brooks film, "The Producers," lead characters Max and Leo lose everything when their (intentional) flop becomes a hit. On Broadway, however, one team of producers is praying for exactly that: The Scarlet Pimpernel officially "reopens" Nov. 4, after nearly a year of being Broadway's whipping boy.
For months it's been tainted with the "f" word -- flop, that is. After all, The Scarlet Pimpernel opened to nearly universal scathing reviews and played to half-empty houses at the Minskoff Theatres while producers waited for word-of-mouth to boost the show. By midsummer, informed sources were saying Pimpernel was as much as $10 million in the hole, with Variety reporting that the show was consistently losing $100,000 a week.
Sounds like a recipe for failure, right?
Not necessarily. In a surprise move, Radio City Entertainment, a division of Cablevision Systems Corporation, along with entrepreneur Ted Forstmann, purchased the show from its original production team (Pierre Cossette, Bill Haber, Hallmark Entertainment & Kathleen Raitt). The move, made in mid-July, marked the first time an operating Broadway show has been bought out by a corporation.
Why would a TV conglomerate buy a show with such an iffy track-record? Well, there was still hope the light, PG-rated musical would become a hit with families, tourists and theatre parties, and newcomer Douglas Sills, as Percy (aka "The Scarlet Pimpernel"), was winning a strong following as a Broadway leading man. Still, the new production team had to overcome the perception that the show was stuck in its rut. To that end, two of the three lead actors were recently changed, with Christine Andreas (Marguerite) being replaced by Rachel York and Terrence Mann (Chauvelin) being replaced by Rex Smith. Andreas told PBOL at the time she wasn't happy about the recasting, but she also understood the need for a rework of her character. "These new guys are going to make changes we wished happened a year ago," she said in August. "My character is rather underwritten. It's really because of that unbalance that I'm ready to go."
As for the switch from Mann to Smith, producers no doubt took into consideration that the vast majority of reviews when the show opened pointed out that, as played by Mann, the Chauvelin character simply seemed like a rehash of Mann's Javert in Les Miz. Having a new face in the role would likely lessen those comparisons. That said, Mann also apparently announced early on in the run that his time with the show would be limited, due to commitments to other projects.
Ah, but what of changes to the show itself? Robert Longbottom (Side Show) was brought in to redirect and reshape material, with the help of librettist-lyricist Nan Knighton and composer Frank Wildhorn. Peter Hunt, the original director, is working on other projects.
The show was shut down Oct. 2-9 to implement previously-rehearsed changes in the 1997 musical, a rare move for an already-running project. The "new" show premiered at the matinee Oct. 10 and officially reopens five days before the anniversary of the show's first official opening, Nov. 9.
Significant changes to the production include opening the show with "Storybook" instead of "Madame Guillotine," thus bringing Marguerite front and center right at the beginning, and opening the show with a brighter, more tuneful song than the ironic and grisly "Mme G," which now comes in the second slot. "Believe" has been dropped altogether, as have "Vivez!" and, surprisingly, "Only Love," which was initially being pushed as one of the production's more saleable pop tunes. Instead, Marguerite now sings "I'll Forget You."
Choreography has been added and changed to the Wedding Dance sequence, "The Creation of Man" number, and to the Gavotte at the Prince of Wales' dress-up ball. Also, the title song has been shifted from the middle of the first act to the opening number of the second, now sung by masked guests at the aforementioned ball. A late second act "Lullaby" sung by two characters named Helene and Chloe has been jettisoned -- as have Helene and Chloe.
Recently, The Scarlet Pimpernel had to face yet one more obstacle. Star Sills missed four performances (Oct. 11-14) due to a hoarse voice and sore throat. His understudy, Nat Chandler, went on for all but one of the performances. As of Nov. 1, Sills was back on stage and singing in full voice.
Asked about the show's unusual journey to its second opening night, Sills told the New York Post (Nov. 2), "Were there things wrong with it? Sure, and I think many of them have been addressed, as with the show itself. But remember that these guys have the advantage of a year of hindsight and financial resources that we never had before."
Sills also noted that new director Longbottom asked him to play up Percy's foppishly effeminate behavior when trying to fool French and English nobility. Asked by the Post whether this fed into gay stereotyping, Sills replied, "I've never thought my job involves eliminating bigotry. But I don't have to add to it by making stereotyping any easier. That's why I asked every member of the cast, literally, if my performance went to far. Ultimately, I believe the show blasts open those stereotypes. That's yet another reason I'm proud of what we've done and what we're doing. It's made for quite a year."
Also in the cast are James Bohanek, Stephanie Bast, Pamela Burrell, Nick Cavarra, Nat Chandler, David Cromwell (Robespierre and the Prince of Wales), James Dybas and Harvey Evans.
For tickets and information on The Scarlet Pimpernel at the Minskoff Theatre call (212) 307-4100.