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Whitty books next ditty at SC Rep

'Hedda' hits a high note

HOLLYWOOD — Scribe Jeff Whitty’s comedy “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” has gone still further since May’s staged reading in the Pacific Playwrights Festival.

The tale about Ibsen’s tragic heroine and her search for a different outcome to her story has even acquired “a big, fabulous musical number.”

“It’s my first song I’ve ever written,” the “Avenue Q” book writer says proudly. The world-premiere comedy, which brings together disparate characters from Hedda to “Gone With the Wind’s” Mammy in “the Cul de Sac of Tragic Women,” had a problem with a character arc in the second act. Whitty thought a musical number would solve it.

“But I didn’t want to ask one of my composing friends, because I needed it in three days,” he says. “So I wrote the lyrics and the tune, and then Paul James Prendergast, our sound designer, did these fantastic orchestrations.”

“Further Adventures” opened over the weekend at South Coast Rep’s Julianne Argyros Stage, the complex’s second stage. “It feels like a huge epic in that very intimate theater,” Whitty says, with “40 costumes, 30 wigs, 10 locations.” He praises director Bill Rauch for pulling it all together.

“I just gotta tip my hat to South Coast Rep,” Whitty says. “This play started out as a commission that they gave me when I really needed money. I was working on ‘Avenue Q’ and that wasn’t generating anything, so they sort of picked me up. I was really happy I was able to give them a play that they wanted to do.”

He’s not done with “Avenue Q,” though — not even close. After opening the puppet tuner at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, he and collaborators Robert Gomez and Jeff Marx are doing a bit of reworking for its opening in London, under the aegis of Cameron Mackintosh.

“We’re not moving the setting. That wouldn’t make sense,” Whitty says. However, they do have to find a British equivalent for Gary Coleman, a key character. “We’ve all come to an agreement that it will be a character who exists more in the world of the show, who has the same arc as our famous Gary Coleman. And it’s going to be played by a man this time.”

Whitty thinks the British will be open to the show’s gimmick. With well-established satirical puppet skein “Spitting Image,” “the idea of edgy puppetry is much more a part of the fabric of their culture.”

He says the tuner is “a hard show to market, because people get this puppet fear. It immediately drops away once they get into the theater, but you practically have to chloroform them to get them in.”

That may be part of the problem in Las Vegas, where the show hasn’t been selling out. But Whitty insists a published report that the production has been a commercial disappointment is wrong: “The show has never not made money,” he says.

As for “Avenue Q” in other media, Whitty says it may be a movie some day, but more likely will end up on the small screen. “Before I got onboard, Bobby and Jeff were writing a TV pilot. I still think there’s something in that.

“We’d hide the puppeteers for TV. But we’ve got this stable of characters we’ve created. And I have 200 pages of cut scenes from ‘Avenue Q’ that we can ride on for the first half-season,” he says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, he just turned in a first draft of his screenplay to Warner Bros. for “Zora,” derived from a story on NPR’s “This American Life.”

And his untitled project with Outkast’s Andre 3000 is in the outlining stages. Whitty says the Universal feature will be a “slightly twisted children’s musical, whose secret target audience to me will be stoned college students, but with something to appeal to kids, too.” It’s about twins who are so ignored by their parents that they begin to manifest physical symptoms of their neglect. “The boy begins to disappear, and the girl begins to lose touch with gravity.

“For a movie musical to work, it’s gotta be really contemporary in its presentation,” he adds. “A musical is so much harder than a play, and I’ll say that having sweated through a month of rewrites on ‘Hedda’!”

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