After mixed reaction, show re-written, re-reviewed

SEATTLE– It was Friday morning and the reviews were in: “Princesses” — the most recent Broadway hopeful spawned at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater — was not a hit. But it wasn’t exactly a miss, either. The musical’s creators suddenly found themselves in a kind of showbiz purgatory, with a folder full of mixed reviews and no Broadway contract in hand.

Before noon that day, Aug. 19, they had gathered at the 5th Avenue to plot their next move. By the following Monday, rewrites were well under way, and the theater took the unusual step of asking selected reviewers to return to see the show’s progress the following weekend.

The revision of “Princesses” has been notable for both its speed and for the extent to which it has taken into account critical and audience feedback. 5th Avenue producing artistic director David Armstrong asked patrons at nightly pre-curtain speeches to email him with their thoughts about the show. About 150 people complied.

“I didn’t expect it to be such a valuable tool,” he says, “but it’s turned out to be very helpful. They go line by line, song by song, and get into very intelligent, detailed critique of the show.”

One thing the musical’s writers heard repeatedly, from critics and patrons, was that the story is too glib.

“Princesses” tells the tale of a teenage girl, her self-absorbed movie-star dad and her private-school classmates who are staging a musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book “A Little Princess.”

“Right now, the show is thoroughly entertaining, but not tugging heartstrings the way we intended it to,” Armstrong says. “The father/daughter story needs to be strengthened; we need to give it as much heart and as much impact as we possibly can.”

To that end, director and lyricist David Zippel (“City of Angels”) and composer Matthew Wilder (“Mulan”) have written a new song introducing the father, and writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (“Cheers”) have crafted additional dialogue fleshing out his relationship with his daughter. Also, a backstory about the loss of the family’s wife/mother as been emphasized to up the emotional ante.

The team also is working to improve a scene singled out for derision by nearly every critic who’s seen the show — even amateurs who’ve posted their reviews on Web sites such as BroadwayWorld.com. It portrays a hunky young Hollywood buck putting the moves on the daughter in her dorm room, to the accompaniment of a sexy R&B tune. So far, Zippel and company have not found the key to turn this scene’s lock. “We have two approaches,” Zippel says. “We’re going to write them both and see what happens.”

Even the changes finalized before the show closed Aug. 28 were not all immediately incorporatedbecause of the technical complications of varying a production midrun. But certain alterations could be seen within a week of “Princesses’ ” press opening.

Armstrong says there’s an art to figuring out what critical advice to take and what to ignore. “My rule of thumb is to look at where people (audiences and critics) have the problem, and not look at what they say the problem is, and hardly ever listen to what they say the solution to that problem is,” he says.

For instance, several Seattle pundits claimed auds just can’t relate to characters as pampered and privileged as those in “Princesses.”

But Armstrong argues, “We care about King Arthur and Hamlet, so the fact that they’re rich is not the problem. It’s that the stakes aren’t high enough for us to fully get behind them.”

The stakes are plenty high for the musical itself, which has a lot of money and artistic aspirations riding on it. The 5th Avenue would love to duplicate — or even approach — the success it had developing “Hairspray.” And “Princesses’ ” its creators are determined to open the show on Broadway after a normal preview period of 3½ to 4½ weeks, even though a theater hasn’t yet been secured, and the production hasn’t found its final form.

Not a problem, says Cheri Steinkellner: “The changes we need to make, from our perspective, are not huge. … It’s figuring out what’s baby, what’s bathwater.

“To us, it seems extremely do-able — but of course we’re only guessing until we put it in front of an audience.”

Says lead producer Stewart F. Lane, “It’s not a question of if “Princesses” is coming to Broadway, it’s a question of when.”

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