In undiscovered territory

D.C.'s Arena stages unseen Loesser show

“Having a Frank Loesser musical that’s never been produced is the theater world’s equivalent to discovering a lost album of the Beatles,” says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage. The D.C. theater will end the suspense April 9 when it unveils the world premiere production of “Senor Discretion Himself,” a tuner written by Loesser shortly before his death in 1969.

Loesser, creator of “Guys and Dolls,” “The Most Happy Fella” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” had completed a rough second draft of “Discretion” that his widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, has always wanted to see revised and produced. Loesser based his lighthearted tale on a short story by Budd Schulberg written for Playboy about a small Mexican village where three priests fake a miracle.

The project began more than three years ago, when Jo Loesser attended Arena’s production of “Guys and Dolls” and was so impressed that she invited its director, Charles Randolph-Wright, to oversee it.

An eager Randolph-Wright enlisted Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Rick Salinas and Herb Siguenza) to help rework the 300-page book. He had previously worked with the trio on an Arena production called “Anthems.”

“I felt it was a shame not to have his work heard,” says Jo Loesser. “But I wasn’t going to do anything until I found the right people.” She is convinced she has found them in the newly assembled team.

Massaging Loesser’s script (while leaving his music and lyrics unchanged) has been an “amazing process,” Randolph-Wright said at the show’s inaugural run-through. It involved close supervision by the author’s widow, an entertainer and theater business exec who met her late husband while starring in “Most Happy Fella” on Broadway.

The gestation, which included full workshops, was deliberately conducted away from prying eyes of outsiders — especially Broadway producers. “We agreed that the process must be unencumbered, and that the show be ready when we wanted it to be,” the director said. Jo Loesser privately supported the exercise until Arena Stage officially became a partner.

The theater world essentially knows nothing about the long-languishing musical. That includes the score. With the exception of some numbers performed publicly by Loesser with her daughter, Emily, the score has never been heard; none of it has been recorded.

Jo Loesser believes the public will warm to the music, pointing with particular affection to tunes “You Understand Me” and “The Wisdom of the Heart.” Other songs include “I Cannot Let You Go,” “I Got to Have Somebody” and “Heaven Smiles on Tepancingo.”

She calls them vintage Loesser songs that are tailored to this Mexican-set musical in the same way other Loesser compositions were suited to his other shows.

“You’ll know that it’s Frank when you hear this score,” assures Loesser, who says while composing the score her husband listened to Mexican music, wore a sombrero and even nipped occasionally from a bottle of tequila.

Culture Clash’s reworking of Loesser’s material “was really not a clash at all,” says Randolph-Wright. He says the revised book contains numerous lines that bear the irreverent stamp of CC but in fact were penned by the equally irreverent Loesser.

“Culture Clash are the exact collaborators that Frank needed,” Randolph-Wright says. “They understand his mindset and his humor, but they also bring authenticity and magic to the piece, which he needed.”

The team was struck by the story’s universality, its wide range of emotions and its ability to cross racial and cultural barriers, says Culture Clash’s Montoya. He describes its tone as “somewhere between Speedy Gonzales and Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” adding its tale of priesthood shenanigans could have been ripped from today’s headlines. A largely Latino cast and crew will strive for maximum authenticity.

Principal creative contributors include Doriana Sanchez (choreography), Thomas Lynch (set), Michael Gilliam (lighting), Emilio Sosa (costumes), Brian Cimmet (musical direction), Larry Hochman (orchestrations) and Joey Arreguin (dance arrangements).

The 18-member cast includes Shawn Elliot, John Bolton, Elena Shaddow, Ivan Hernandez and Doreen Montalvo. The Culture Clash trio opted not to perform in the show as the three priests, so those roles went to Tony Chiroldes, Carlos Lopez and Robert Almodovar. Washington actor Steven Cupo also has been cast in the musical; auditions were held in D.C., New York and Los Angeles.

One of the project’s biggest challenges involved fitting Loesser’s 17 numbers into the reworked script. Since new songs could not be added to fit newly written scenes, music director Brian Cimmet occasionally adapted existing melodies to other parts of the show. Meanwhile, dance arranger Arreguin reworked numbers to capture mariachi and other relevant styles.

Arena Stage has mounted the work for roughly its standard $1 million budget for musicals, and it will be performed at Arena’s four-sided Fichandler stage. It will participate in any future Broadway production and will benefit from any future success, says executive director Stephen Richard.

Artistic director Smith says the project is particularly special for the theater, “since we focus on American plays and all that is exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit. This musical fits in perfectly with our mission.”

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