Carrying late composers’ tunes

Collaborators working to bring shows left unfinished by Ebb, Coleman to stage

The recent deaths of Fred Ebb and Cy Coleman shine the spotlight on their magnificent, prolific output of Broadway musicals. That legacy includes a sizable number of shows they wrote, or were in the process of writing, that have never been staged in Gotham.

At Ebb’s Nov. 15 memorial at the Ambassador Theater, special note was made of four such works he wrote with John Kander and other collaborators.

Debra Monk offered her rendition of “It’s a Business,” a brassy, satirical take on the legit industry, from “Curtains.” Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a ragtime number, “Make Friends With the Truth,” from the tentatively titled “Minstrel Show,” about the Scottsboro Boys. Brent Barrett performed the title song from “The Skin of Our Teeth,” based on Thornton Wilder’s play. And Chita Rivera sang “Love and Love Alone” from “The Visit,” in which she starred at Chi’s Goodman Theater in 2001.

The long-gestating “Curtains” is a backstage murder mystery set in the 1950s. Peter Stone was book writer; since his death in 2003, Rupert Holmes has joined the team. “I don’t know exactly what the proper credit will be, but Rupert is now working on the libretto,” Kander tells Variety. “We had a meeting about it. Hopefully we’ll be doing a workshop in February.” Scott Ellis directs.

According to Kander, “The Minstrel Show” would use blackface to tell the story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of a rape in 1930s Alabama. Susan Stroman and Tommy Thompson are on board to direct and write the book. “There is a first draft,” says Kander. But like any musical in its early stages, songs will have to be rewritten and added. “At the moment, I’m trying to see what I can do myself,” says Kander, who will take a shot at writing the lyrics. “I went into Fred’s apartment and stole his writing dictionary. If I feel I can’t do it, then I’m going to have to contact someone.”

“Skin of Our Teeth,” much revised from the earlier “Over and Over,” looks to a final four-week workshop under the direction of Gabriel Barre. Joseph Stein is book writer.

And, of course, there is “The Visit,” which Kander calls “ready to go.”

So, too, is Cy Coleman’s “Like Jazz” (which will be renamed). And better yet, it has a deep-pockets producer. After washing its hands of show business in the 1980s with United Artists, Transamerica returns to the biz with a projected fall 2005 production of “Like Jazz” on Broadway.

“What a nice way to get back into entertainment,” says the company’s Lon Olejniczak. As managing director of Transamerica Capital, he comes to Gotham this week to meet directors and put together a design team. “This is our branding/investment opportunity,” he says of the Coleman/Larry Gelbart/Alan & Marilyn Bergman tuner. William Morris reps the project.

Earlier this season, Transamerica rescued the musical “Brooklyn,” which came up cash-shy when Toronto-based StageVentures II withdrew. Transamerica took a producer credit on that tuner.

The company also underwrote the 2003 world preem of “Like Jazz” at Mark Taper Forum, where Gordon Davidson helmed the show.

Other Coleman tuners have yet to set dates.

David Zippel, who first collaborated with Coleman on “City of Angels,” has two projects with the composer. “Pamela’s First Musical,” written with Wendy Wasserstein, had been announced to workshop at Goodspeed next year. That staging was canceled last week, and Zippel would not comment on the project’s near future.

“N,” based on the lives of Napoleon and Josephine, reunited the “City of Angels” team. “It is about half-finished. The score is more than half-finished,” Zippel says. “I’ve talked to Larry Gelbart about everything since Cy’s death, but not that.”

With so many unproduced tuners floating around, the moment looks right for an Encores!-type group to present such projects in concert.

“We’ve talked about it,” says Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel. “If we did performed them, it would be in another context, like Encores 2, and in a smaller space.”

But there is at least one significant hurdle. Unlike revivals, most unproduced musicals have never been orchestrated. “Orchestrations cost $150,000,” Viertel says.

(Zachary Pincus-Roth contributed to this report.)

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