Musical satire uses orthodox approach

Even as quirky musicals go, “Saved” is an odd bird.

The general trend for screen-to-stage adaptations is to make everything larger than life — broadening the comedy, heightening the romance and rendering the characters sufficiently loud and cartoonish to play to the back row. But the creative team behind the tuner adaptation of the 2004 indie pic, which satirizes life in an evangelical Christian high school, has gone the opposite route. “Saved” the musical has reined in the spoofing and is softening the edges of the characters, playing them more empathetically. It even excises the exclamation mark from the film’s title.

The financial approach behind “Saved,” which opens June 3 at Off Broadway nonprofit Playwrights Horizons, is as unconventional as its artistic gambit. However, if the show works, it could cement the reputations of its writers while carving a lucrative touring sked — with or without a commercial transfer.

But first the scribes — composer-lyricist Michael Friedman and librettist-lyricists John Dempsey and Rinne Groff — must solve the conundrum of tone. “Saved” follows a teenager who gets pregnant after she sleeps with her boyfriend in a misguided attempt to cure his homosexuality.

That’s a double-edged sword: If the plot is seen as blasphemous, it could anger religious groups. If it’s seen as pious, it could be lambasted as toothless.

Friedman says there have been obvious guideposts. “Every time we took an honest, sympathetic approach, the show seemed to work,” he explains. “Any time we went toward harsher satire or commentary, it stopped working.”

That’s why Hilary Faye, the righteous leader of a teen-pop gospel group played by Mandy Moore in the movie, gets a sympathetic number in act two. “She makes more sense as a real person, not as a caricature,” says Dempsey.

Creatives insist they’re interested in universal dramatic questions, not pronouncements about any particular religion.  “There’s political thought involved, but I wouldn’t say there’s a political message,” says Groff. “What we’re really asking is, ‘How do you live with faith in contemporary society?’ “

That question could underwhelm auds expecting live versions of the film’s irreverent moments, such as Hilary Faye screaming, “I am filled with Christ’s love!” while hurling a Bible at her friend.

But Friedman feels those expectations have spurred better work.

“Our audience in New York is primed to go to the satire place, to find these things funny, because our audience isn’t necessarily from a world where people speak in tongues or practice that really charismatic Christianity,” he says. “It’s more complicated and more satisfying to take them to an emotional place, where those beliefs suddenly seem very approachable.”

Of course, people have to see the show before they can be moved by it. The film, a United Artists release that grossed roughly $9 million in the U.S., has a fan base, but most patrons will have to be freshly sold on its concept. “You even say the word ‘Christian,’ and you scare half the people away,” concedes Tim Sanford, a.d. of Playwrights Horizons.

The theater’s marketing plays down the evangelical angle; the promo poster sells comedy, featuring a cartoon heart with wings and a halo.

Plus, Sanford notes the theater’s subscriber base will buoy the box office during the musical’s three-weeklimited run.

If Playwrights Horizons were the only force behind the show, that level of interest might be all that’s expected. However, “Saved” is buffeted by enhancement money from Elephant Eye Theatrical, a for-profit development and production company that consists of individual producers; a consortium of five regional presenting houses, dubbed Five Cent Prods.; and 11 other presenting orgs labeled “strategic members.”

Last year, Elephant Eye fully capitalized at $8 million, and “Saved” will be its first major outing.  The idea for the tuner even began in the commercial realm, when Sandy Stern, one of the film’s lead producers, approached Elephant Eye CEO Stuart Oken about adapting the material. Oken bit, recruiting Dempsey (“The Witches of Eastwick”) and director Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”) before Playwrights got involved.

As with any nonprofit show boosted by enhancement money, it’s tempting to assume “Saved” is being groomed for a Rialto transfer, like commercial hits such as “Avenue Q,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.”

Playwrights Horizons could benefit from another prestige venture like “Grey Gardens.” Also based on a cult film, that tuner opened at the theater in early 2006, moving later that year to Broadway, where it was a commercial under-performer but a critical success that won three Tonys.

Perhaps cautioned by that experience,  no one wants to shove “Saved” onto the Rialto.

“It doesn’t scream ‘Broadway,’ ” Oken says. “I do hope it gets there. That is an economic goal, but if it doesn’t, then I’ll be content that it was good. And maybe we’ll get some smaller productions around the country.”

Since Elephant Eye is also developing tuner adaptations of high-profile properties like “The Addams Family” and “Bruce Lee: Journey to the West,” which “South Pacific” helmer Bartlett Sher will direct, Oken is comfortable debuting with modest expectations. (The budget for “Saved” is $830,000.)

“I think it’s important that our first show not be something that needs to establish an industry-wide brand,” he says.

For his part, Sanford says he signed on because Playwrights was able to develop the material to its own standards. “If a musical’s going to have the integrity we look for, it’s important that we work with it from its earliest incarnation — that we can keep the project artist-driven,” he says.

The theater was integral in hiring Groff and Friedman, who are known in legit circles for their offbeat work. (Groff’s play “The Ruby Sunrise” was produced at the Public in 2005, while the prolific Friedman is resident composer for Off Broadway troupe the Civilians.) Similarly, instead of famous names, they helped cast Gotham stage stalwarts like Julia Murney, John Dossett and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

“One motivation for a commerical producer to come to a nonprofit is the ability to produce on artistic criteria alone, and not think so much about the market,” Sanford says. “We don’t have to think about having a sexy name for a role. We just go for the best people possible.”

Asked if he’s hoping for a transfer, Sanford says, “The unspoken dream has got to remain unspoken. Is it true that musicals are the only things that ever transfer now? Yes. But it doesn’t help me to worry about it.”

If “Saved” does make an impact in Gotham, it has an automatic leg up as a touring vehicle. The many presenting houses affiliated with Elephant Eye, which range from the Bushnell Center in Hartford, Conn., to the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn., have invested in the show, giving them the option to book it. Even if the Rialto doesn’t come calling, the tuner could have a regional future.

“If we have a show that’s viable, but not a smash hit, it might incentivize the partners to support a small tour, and that might encourage a few other venues to pick it up,” says Oken. “We might break even on a show that otherwise wouldn’t break even.”

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