While a certain superhero in red tights dangled from wires in vain hopes of a premiere, Broadway’s major tuners went about the business of — apologies to Stephen Sondheim — “putting it together” so they might be able to say: “Look, we at least opened in Gotham.” And got nommed for a best musical Tony in the process.
Like “Spider-Man,” “The Book of Mormon” eschewed the usual pre-Broadway tryout. Unlike “Spidey,” the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone actually opened in the 2010-11 season, as planned. The two “South Park” creators had been looking for an opportunity to satirize Joseph Smith and the Latter-Day Saints when they came upon “Avenue Q.”
“A Broadway show has always been, for me, the ultimate thing to do,” says Parker, “and we were like, ‘if we did one it could be something like this.’?”
Jam sessions with “Q” composer Bobby Lopez occupied twice-yearly hiatus periods on the animated sitcom, until a score and shaped narrative emerged. “We thought the highest thing to try to achieve was a traditional Broadway musical,” says Stone, “not some spoof or bullshit version of it.”
Yet the four-year process retained a careless quality until, as Stone recalls, “there was a day (producer) Scott Rudin says, ‘March 24 at the O’Neill, it’s booked,’ and it was like: Uh-oh. I guess we’re doing it.”
The TV guys’ Broadway inexperience never showed, Lopez reports. “If anything they were the elder statesmen, because they have so much more experience, period, in entertainment.”
Casey Nicholaw, co-helming with Parker, found the moguls to be savvy collaborators. “At times you have to lead somebody, but I never had to do that here. Trey said, ‘Oh, I get this tech rehearsal thing. It’s five minutes of ‘this is cool,’ and five hours of being bored out of your skull.’?”
Against all the wisdom of Broadway wiseguys, “Mormon” opened cold on the Main Stem. But the other Tony competitors came up the traditional way, through the aches and pains of the road.
“Sister Act,” musicalizing the smash 1992 pic, won audience cheers but critical brickbats in 2006 at the Pasadena Playhouse, and then in 2009 in the West End, where Jerry Zaks first encountered it.
“I like what the movie was about: unlikely connections,” the helmer reports. “Delores and the Mother Superior don’t have anything in common, and are forced by circumstance to learn that they’re not all that different. Call it schmaltzy, I love it. I love watching that happen.”
Believing “the score was wonderful, but ill-served” in Blighty, Zaks enlisted Douglas Carter Beane (“a gift to me in my later years”) for a top-to-bottom reworked libretto.
That score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater “didn’t change much,” Zaks recalls. Fortunately, “I had really courageous producer, Joop van den Ende. He had to make a decision and it involved allowing me to start from scratch as far as the book went. That was a big deal for him. He had hoped that Doug could use the London script as a point of departure and work on it. It became clear to me that was not acceptable.”
Failure in the musical theater, Zaks believes, “usually boils down to: the director didn’t try hard enough” to control all the elements. “For example, the composer wants more music. One of the important aspects of my job is to control that: ‘No, I don’t need underscoring here.’ It’s so much about navigating, ordering that process.”
For “Catch Me if You Can,” adapted from the 2002 biopic about legendary impostor Frank Abagnale Jr., helmer Jack O’Brien was forced to navigate and order “more material than I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. … It’s taken the longest, been the hardest, and it’s a true story. That’s a triple assignment.”
A workshop held by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman “blew us away,” O’Brien reports. “The idea was to adapt the 1960s variety shows we all grew up with and combine it with the narrative, keeping the story floating through presentational means.”
But crafting the balance between the score and Terrence McNally’s libretto proved elusive. By the time the show reached New York, Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) was brought in to bring “perspective,” O’Brien’s word, “so we could see how to fit the pieces together. It’s still Terrence’s characters and script, but Brian’s adjustments made it easier for us to see what had to stay and what had to go.”
“Catch Me” struggled to catch a break in its 2009 Seattle tryout, cruelly marked by the murder of star Norbert Leo Butz’s sister prior to previews. “We had to band together,” says the director, with Shaiman crediting Butz’s tenacity: “He ended up, in a classic way, lifting us up and showing us how to keep going.”
“It had every life trauma thrown at it, ” O’Brien says. “But it only made us value the project more.”
“The Scottsboro Boys” almost ran aground upon the 2004 death of lyricist Fred Ebb. “Only about two-thirds of it was written,” says composer John Kander, “and it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing Broadway producers were dying to put out there. But Susan Stroman, David Thompson and I were a true family, and we said ‘We’re writers’ and kept going. It was the kind of atmosphere you dream about, when you’re just working with no egos floating around and you’re devoted to your subject matter, and you do feel what you’re doing matters.”
For all the year’s contenders, the creatives’ personal stake in the material made the crucial difference.
Kander recalls, “A woman who had actually been involved in helping the Scottsboro Boys came up to me at a preview and said, ‘This is a precious subject to me, and if you fuck this up you’re going to hear from me.’ But she was in tears after. We all were.”
Robert Hofler contributed to this report.
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