Shakespeare's new groove
CEDAR CITY - In an era of fickle arts audiences, selling tickets to new plays can be a gamble. Especially at a place like the Utah Shakespearean Festival, where, just as the company's name suggests, the brand-name attractions are 400-year-old plays by a dead white guy.
That's why, before the opening of the festival's 46th summer season, there's such excitement about the world premiere of a new play, "Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical." Paired with Pioneer Theatre Company's new adaptation of "Paint Your Wagon" set to open in September, the new "Tenor" marks a mini-boomlet for Utah-produced musicals.
Both shows, which are sparking early talk about transfers to Broadway, offer a rare opportunity for local audiences to see and discover new work as it's taking shape, just as a small summer theater in New Hampshire launched Ken Ludwig's original "Lend Me a Tenor" back in 1985. "Imagine being there for the first mounting of 'Phantom of the Opera' or 'Les Misrables' or 'Hairspray' or anything," says actor Jered Tanner, who plays the show's lead, the milquetoast Max Garber.
Mounting a new, musical "Tenor" seems like the smartest kind of calculated risk for a conservative, but ambitious, regional theater company. After all, the new show is based on a farcical comedy that's already a big name with theatergoers worldwide.
Finding his voice: In its original form and the new musical adaptation, "Tenor" is the story of Max, a nerdy Boy Friday for the Cleveland Opera Company. He's transformed after meeting Tito Merelli, a world-famous Italian tenor who comes to town for a well-promoted performance.
Mistaken identities of Shakespearean proportions ensue, thanks to Max's star-struck girlfriend, Maggie, plus an opera-singing bellhop, an ambitious company diva, a gaggle of Opera Guild ladies and Maria, Tito's jealous wife.
The show's producers and director are raving about the score, especially a duet for tenors, "Be Youself." In the song, Tito - played by Steven Stein-Grainger, a veteran of the Toronto and touring shows of "Phantom of the Opera" - teaches Max how to be a better, more authentic version of himself, while reinforcing the singer's self-worth. "It's the feel-good number of the show; the way it's written it just builds and builds and builds," Stein-Grainger says.
It's a song about learning to sing with your own voice, even how to adopt the swaggering confidence of a world-famous singer - a comedic anthem that serves as a show-stopping, toe-tapping tune. Tanner promises: "People will be humming it when they leave the theater."
"Every time I hear 'Be Youself' the hair stands up on my arms," says director Roger Bean. "It is truly an amazing song. I think it is the song of the show."
At first, hearing his own bold pronouncement makes Bean nervous, but then he adopts the spirit of the play. "I can guarantee the best production of this musical that has ever been seen," he says - after all, it is the first one. "If it's not, I will personally refund people's money. See, I have been listening to 'Be Youself.' I have the swagger."
So crazy it might work: The seed for the new Utah musical was planted five years ago, when Peter Sham, who was playing Tito in a small Pennsylvania theater company's production of "Lend Me a Tenor," arranged to meet the show's playwright. Sham, a longtime actor at USF, later moved with his wife, choreographer Kirsten Sham, to Cedar City, where he now teaches theater at Southern Utah University.
In Utah, Sham teamed with composer/director Brad Carroll, a former musical arranger for Walt Disney Entertainment, to write a new holiday chestnut, "A Christmas Carol: On the Air," the story of brothers who produce a 1940s-era radio show.
After that successful collaboration, it was Sham's idea to approach Ludwig with the audacious plan to make over the writer's most famous comedy into a musical. Back then, the idea, though promising, struck Carroll as crazy.
Three years after getting Ludwig's permission, the show is, as theater people say, "getting on its feet." Now the writers are in another kind of crazy state, hearing the cast animate their songs and words, working with the director on last-minute tweaks. "Peter and Brad were certainly fearless in taking a popular piece and making it new, bigger, broader and happier," Bean says.
For Sham, the writing started with a commitment to respect the original characters. For Carroll, the musical's 1930s-era setting allowed him to layer the score with the influences of his musical crushes, ranging from Gershwin songs to classic opera riffs. "I stole as much as I could," he says.
For example, there's a song in the first act, "I Would Choose-a You All Over Again," where Tito argues with his wife, reprising the fight the couple have been having since their wedding night. The number includes bits of sung Italian dialogue, which will be translated into English via supertitles. "The piece goes from Puccini to Verdi to Rossini - it's brilliant," says Stein-Grainger, who worked as an opera singer for a decade before, as he says, impersonating one in "Phantom." "The first time going through it, I was laughing myself silly, because I recognized all of it."
Then there's the ongoing challenge of the repertory schedule, as USF is said to be the only theater company in the world to launch six plays in six days. That means each actor in "Tenor" is also double- and triple-cast in other shows, working just as hard to nail other lines, other parts.
And for a company that rarely mounts original plays, there's an additional "clock's ticking" urgency in the rehearsal room, where the writing team is working closely with the director. "Every day we get script changes, and music changes, and cuts and additions," says Stein-Grainger. "You really have to be on your game."
A global sensation: The backstory story of the original play is as magnetic as descriptions of the musical's hummable score.
Legendary producer Andrew Lloyd Webber backed "Tenor's" 1986 London run, and that early success launched Ludwig's writing career, allowing the Harvard graduate to give up his day job practicing law. The comedy won more critical attention - and two Tony Awards - with a 1989 Broadway run (star power in the cast included Tovah Feldshuh, Philip Bosco and Victor Garber, Sydney's father on "Alias").
Now the play has been translated into some 20 languages and is thought to be the most-produced contemporary comedy in the world, said to be playing somewhere in the world every day of the year.
No matter how many successes Ludwig has piled up since, with plays such as "Crazy for You," "Moon Over Buffalo" and "Leading Ladies," he's known for "Tenor."
In many ways, he says, a musical version seemed inevitable. Because of "Tenor's" musical roots, with a story following the backstage machinations at an opera company, people often assume the show was already a musical, anyway. Ludwig, who has read multiple drafts of the musical's script, is among those eagerly anticipating opening night at the Utah theater, just to see how his original story will be re-turned out.
The Bard's new tunes
* "LEND ME A TENOR," a world premiere musical, previews June 27, opens June 30 and plays through Sept. 1 at the Utah Shakespearean Festival on the Southern Utah University campus at 351 W. Center St., Cedar City.
* TO HEAR EXCERPTS of "Be Yourself" and other songs from the new "Lend Me a Tenor," visit: http://www.bard.org/news/audio.html.
* TICKETS ARE $20 to $48 (SUU students/senior discounts) and available by calling 800-PLAYTIX or visiting http://www.bard.org.
* ALSO PLAYING at the festival are three Shakespeare plays, including the Bard's last tragedy, the rarely produced "Coriolanus," as well as "Twelfth NIght" and "King Lear." The lineup of contemporary plays includes Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" and George Bernard Shaw's "Candida."
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