Tally up the packleading 10 Tony nominations for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and the Broadway musical looks like the clear favorite of the season. But add up some of the other numbers the tuner has racked up — 10 years of struggling to get to the Rialto, one scuttled regional run and one lawsuit — and it’s obvious the awards recognition has been hard won.
Heck, it was a challenge just raising the money. Lead producer Joey Parnes admits the show, a mischievously macabre tale about a wannabe aristocrat methodically killing off all the relatives who stand before him in line for an inheritance, didn’t achieve its relatively modest $7.5 million capitalization until after the production had already begun previews on Broadway.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Parnes said. “But all of a sudden, once we started performances in New York, something turned. As soon as people saw the show, they loved it and wanted to invest.”
That seems to be the running theme of the “Gentleman’s Guide” backstory: Producers, investors and audiences approach with caution, but slowly and surely, the show converts them into believers.
The hesitation stems in part from the potentially dark subject matter of a musical whose crooning protagonist is a serial murderer. Based on a little-known Roy Horniman novel called “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” — which also inspired the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” — the musical has no links to a big-name property that can turns audience heads, a la fellow Tony nominee “Aladdin.” The show’s creative team of Broadway tyros, book writer-lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer-lyricist Steven Lutvak, had little industry cache before “Gentleman’s Guide,” and its stars, Tony winner Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) and Bryce Pinkham, didn’t have the name recognition to sell tickets to theatergoers who aren’t theater avids.
“It’s not like we had a whole bunch of assets that would make it easy to sell on Broadway,” Parnes said.
The show’s creators have heard some version of those words all along. “We heard a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s not a Broadway show,'” Freedman remembered.
Freedman, a telepic writer (“Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” the 1997 version of “Cinderella”), and Lutvak, a vocal coach and cabaret performer, first met in the musical theater program at New York U. Having vowed years ago to work together on something, an initial start on an adaptation of Greg Mitchell’s book “The Campaign of the Century” got sidetracked by the show that would become “Gentleman’s Guide,” from an idea Lutvak had harbored since he was 18 years old.
The composer recalls coming across “Kind Hearts and Coronets” on TV when he was in college, after becoming familiar with the film through his Anglophile father. Lutvak found himself immediately grabbed by the outrageous story, the dry humor and the love triangle between one man and two women, who reminded him in an off-kilter way of Laurey and Ado Annie from “Oklahoma!”
“I watched six or eight minutes of the movie and then I bolted upright in bed and said, ‘My God, it’s a musical!’” he remembered.
He first attempted to get the theatrical rights to the title in the late 1980s, and kept trying periodically over the years as the film changed hands from company to company. He finally got the go-ahead from Canal Plus in 2003, and he and Freedman embarked in 2004 on a work that had its first full reading at the Huntington Theater Company in 2006.
Recognition for the show, a musical comedy with tongue-in-cheek nods to the music-hall and operetta tradition, at first came easy. Its creators picked up the Edward Kleban Award and the Fred Ebb Award for their work on the brewing tuner, and also scored a developmental slot at the Sundance Theater Lab.
But as potential producers started to sniff around the title, a deal for a full stage production was never reached with Canal Plus. The “Gentleman’s Guide” team eventually parted ways with the film, vowing to make the musical an adaptation of the novel.
Much of the show’s material already differed from the movie’s narrative; more elements — including the characters’ names — changed. One sticking point, however, was that in “Gentleman’s Guide,” one actor plays all of the relatives who are bumped off by the story’s anti-hero. Alec Guinness does the same in the film.
That device proved one of the major bones of contention in the lawsuit brought by Canal Plus in 2010. The suit was eventually dismissed, but in the meantime it derailed a scheduled premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. “Those were dark times, when Steven and I felt it would never happen,” Freedman said.
Through the years, however, the show had slowly picked up supporters. One current member of the producing team, Ryan Hugh Mackey, first got behind the show in 2008, after he cold-called Lutvak while hawking subscriptions for the Public Theater. Lutvak recalls that director Darko Tresnjak didn’t think much of the score when he first listened to it, but was won over when he went back to the recording on a whim, six months later.
Even Parnes started out as what he describes as “a friend of the court,” helping the show to set up enhancement money for its regional runs at Hartford Stage in 2012 and then at San Diego’s Old Globe in spring 2013. He didn’t go after the rights to bring the show to Broadway until after the run at the Old Globe.
By then, a number of indicators suggested the musical was accumulating fans. The tuner stoked strong audience enthusiasm in both regional outings, and the Hartford run earned a rave in the New York Times. After seeing the show in Hartford, Jordan Roth, the head of Broadway landlord Jujamcyn Theaters, offered Parnes the Walter Kerr Theater if the Broadway engagement fell into place.
After “Gentleman’s Guide” opened Nov. 17 in New York, the musical won critical kudos again. But despite some of the best reviews of the season, audiences have shown some of the same reluctance to embrace the title as those in the industry initially did. For most of the winter, weekly grosses hovered below the $500,000 mark, and in the spring the numbers failed to warm up with the weather.
“The bottom line was, we weren’t experiencing the uptick in momentum we were expecting,” Parnes said. “But the seal of approval of the Tony nominations has been a game changer for us.”
Parnes believes the Tony-prodded word of mouth will sustain the show’s sales for some time to come, and the producers are already looking ahead to a tour planned to hit the road in 2015-16.
Once the Tony hoopla is over, Freedman and Lutvak intend to return to “Campaign of the Century,” with Tresnjak now attached. Possible future projects for Parnes include the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical “Bright Star,” bowing at the Old Globe this fall.
But for now, the team can be forgiven for enjoying the end of their long road to the Rialto. “I’m just trying to live in the moment,” Freedman said, “and focus on what’s happening right now.”