Zambello stacks global slate

Director works to bring shows to new audiences

“Very few shows work globally,” says director Francesca Zambello. “Most play better on one side of the Atlantic or the other.’

Zambello, though, has a title with notoriety on both sides of the Pond — “Rebecca,” the classic British bestseller that was turned into an Oscar-winning best picture by Alfred Hitchcock, and which, in tuner form, is enjoying a three-year-and-counting run in Vienna. Following a recent London workshop with Sierra Boggess and Brent Barrett that was directed by Zambello, it’s now on the brink of production.

But Zambello, currently in London creating a joint Royal Opera and Royal Ballet production of Tchaikovsky’s comic rarity “The Tsarina’s Slippers,” has a decision to make: She’s in discussion with producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza over whether “Rebecca” should open in North America or London.

On the U.K. side, “Rebecca” is a beloved Brit title by Daphne du Maurier. There is, however, no tradition of European hits transferring to the U.K. So Zambello has hired Christopher Hampton, dramatist and co-librettist of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” to rewrite the book.

“Christopher has been invaluable in pointing it more toward the expectations of an English-speaking audience,” Zambello says. “It’s a big, bold, romantic musical and an unconventional love story because it’s a mystery. Hitchcock created an amazing visual feast out of it. I think music can be expressive in an equally brilliant way that allows for the surreal world of the dark house and its shadows to take on a dramatic persona.”

The timing of the show will partly depend on Zambello’s dance card, which is not exactly empty. Last year saw 12 Zambello productions worldwide and she’s not slowing down.

In addition to the Tchaikovsky — “We’re zoning in on the Christmas territory normally occupied by ‘The Nutcracker’ ” — she’s three-quarters of her way through a Ring cycle for San Francisco Opera and is developing an opera-house-scale version of “Show Boat” at Chicago Lyric Opera, with a new book by Doug Wright refocused around the character of Magnolia, in an attempt to solve the show’s famous second-act problem.

Meanwhile, for the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Zambello and playwright Marsha Norman are adapting Louise Erdrich’s passionate novel “The Master Butchers Singing Club” into a new play with music.

“It will use existing American music and German folksongs and lieder,” Zambello says. None of Erdrich’s many novels has been adapted, but Zambello persuaded her to wait on selling film rights because she believes the book’s multiple layers of reality are more suited to theater. It will receive a reading at the Guthrie in January.

Zambello is also developing a musical with “Les Miserables” composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, a contemporary retelling of a classic work currently under wraps; and “Heart of a Soldier,” a rock opera by Chris Theofanidis based on the book by Pulitzer-winner James B. Stewart, scheduled to open in late 2011.

If that weren’t enough, there are tours. A scaled-down version of Zambello’s Disney show “The Little Mermaid” is in the works, a production not treated kindly by critics on Broadway. The director argues, however, that there was a disconnect between the critical response and the need to attract a different, younger audience.

“People must realize that if you don’t interest audiences when they’re this age, they’re never going to grow up to like Tom Stoppard,” she says. “We have got to be making theater for audiences of the future.”

That’s also part of the thinking behind her current tour of “Little House on the Prairie,” a show that bypassed Gotham. Did so-so notices mean she and the producers ran scared?

“What’s more important is that it should run across America,” Zambello says of the production. “There’s an audience I believe that will connect with the piece, so why not connect with them? You don’t have to go to New York to do that. I don’t think Broadway has to be the epicenter of American theater. It’s an integral part of it, but if we want to keep theater alive, we have to think about our whole country.”

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