Choreographer walks tightrope putting screen story en pointe

LONDON — With new West End tuners scarcer than they were last season, Matthew Bourne’s “Edward Scissorhands” stands to carve out a prominent place in the musical vacuum — which heightens anticipation for the two-act ballet based on the 1990 Tim Burton film.

The show marks arguably the highest-profile dance piece from director-choreographer Bourne — which means added pressure artistically and financially.

With an advance approaching $1.4 million (as of Nov. 14) and international dates in place well before the Nov. 30 London preem, “Scissorhands” confirms the ever-widening cachet of its 45-year-old creator.

Both working for his own company, New Adventures, and in collaboration with others (he co-directed Disney’s Broadway-bound “Mary Poppins”), Bourne has become a notable English brand whose work is ripe for export.

That, in turn, ups the pressure on Bourne, in Plymouth for a weeklong tryout of the ballet.

How will “Scissorhands” cut it onstage, sans dialogue? “I did read on a Tim Burton chat page some woman who threatened to poison us all,” Bourne deadpans.

“I’m so used to that by now,” he adds, speaking of the level of expectation. “Virtually everything I’ve done has had that attached to it, where I’ve been dealing with much-loved classics. You have to walk a tightrope between pleasing people who love these pieces and wanting to make them theatrical and to surprise people, as well. I don’t want anyone to come along and see what they expect.”

Not that Bourne is walking the tightrope alone.

“Scissorhands” is opening at Sadler’s Wells as a co-production between Bourne and producer Robert Noble’s New Adventures, onetime Cameron Mackintosh staffer Martin McCallum and Los Angeles-based Marc Platt, a film mogul and one of the lead producers on Broadway smash “Wicked.”

Factoring in six weeks of workshops, its £1.35 million ($2.34 million) capitalization reps an intriguing amalgam of public and private coin, as befits the mixed economy that typifies British culture these days.

The sum includes a $350,000 Arts Council grant. New Adventures “has been a very important economic indicator in this country for the world of dance,” Noble tells Variety. “We’ve had 200 people working on (Bourne’s) repertory over the last two or three years.”

Without the Arts Council outlay, Noble says, the play probably wouldn’t have been mounted. “Commercial investors would regard it as being too scary,” he says. The Wells run ends Feb. 5.

The Arts Council is contributing a separate $350,000 to support a 15-week British tour of “Scissorhands,” running February through May. That will be followed by a seven-week tour to Korea and then Japan next summer, with San Francisco and Los Angeles on tap for the end of 2006. New York is an obvious option, too, though how and where isn’t yet clear.

Brooklyn Academy of Music is a likely venue, having hosted Bourne’s “Play Without Words” — a dance reinvention of another cult movie, Joseph Losey’s “The Servant.” But the greater name value of “Scissorhands” would seem to demand more prolonged exposure. Chances of a Broadway engagement are clouded by the commercial crash and burn in the 1998-99 season of Bourne’s much-lauded, Tony-winning “Swan Lake,” a $3 million venture lasting 14 weeks.

“We all lost our shirt,” acknowledges McCallum, at that time working for Mackintosh, the Broadway co-producer on “Swan Lake.” “We were trying to position the show for purists or the bridge-and-tunnel trade, and we fell between two stools.”

Now, he says, “we’re trying to find a way to do ‘Edward’ without putting ourselves in the same position.” McCallum is talking of a protected New York stand of six weeks max.

For now, though, the emphasis is on getting right for London a piece Bourne has been wanting to do for seven or eight years, well before he cast two 23-year-olds, Sam Archer and Richard Winsor, as alternating Edwards. At one point, the show was intended for the Old Vic, and helmer Burton was being talked of as a possible “creative consultant.”

Instead, it’s happening at Sadler’s Wells, where New Adventures has an artistic base, and without hands-on (scissors or otherwise) involvement from Burton beyond lending support. (Helmer is bringing a party of 12 to the press night.) The film’s composer, Danny Elfman, has written some new music, says Bourne, who has tapped “Play Without Words” composer Terry Davies to bring it together. Film scribe Caroline Thompson has a co-adaptor credit and was due in Plymouth for the tryout.

Can “Edward” pay back in its limited stand at the 1,486-seat Sadler’s Wells? “Just about,” says Noble. Bourne’s “Nutcracker” recouped in week eight out of 11, while last season’s “Swan Lake” revival played to capacity.

This past year has found Bourne so busy — “Play Without Words” went from being an experimental National Theater art piece to another global traveler — that he finds himself wanting more time. “It would be great to be able to have longer,” he says of opening “Edward” after eight days of London previews and a single week in Plymouth. (Most big musicals, in London or New York, preview for a month.)

“But I’ll keep working on it regardless” after opening, “as I always do.” Small wonder Bourne plans to spend 2006 consolidating existing shows — “Poppins” will mark his first Broadway musical — rather than taking on anything new, though plans remain for a Broadway collaboration with Joe Mantello on “Pal Joey,” dependent on casting. (Bourne cites Helen Mirren as an ideal Vera.)

For now, he’s busy with the dancing topiary of “Scissorhands” and what he calls “the whole lovely challenge (of) making those hands work” — a new ballet, perhaps, that’s not just about the feet.

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