Culture Clash retools Loesser tuner for D.C.

Latino group reworks late playwright's tale

Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage will preem a “new” Frank Loesser stage musical in April 2004.

Shortly before his death in 1969, the creator of “Guys and Dolls,” “The Most Happy Fella” and “How to Success in Business Without Really Trying” finished his second draft of a new show, “Senor Discretion Himself.”

Loesser based his tale, about three Mexican priests who fake a miracle, on a short story by Budd Schulberg that was published in Playboy magazine.

In the 1980s, Schulberg himself took a stab at reworking Loesser’s draft — a sprawling 300-page script — for a reading of “Senor” at Musical Theater Workshop.

Jo Loesser, the composer’s widow, didn’t let that version fly. “Jo is very protective of Frank’s work,” Schulberg said.

She might have had concerns about the controversial subject matter.

“Frank had his characters speak with a Mexican accent,” said Jo Loesser. “I think that’s why people thought it would be politically incorrect. No one has said a word about that recently.”

Arena Stage and Loesser have now commissioned Culture Clash (a.k.a. Richard Montoya, Rick Salinas and Herb Siguenza) to rework the original book. The Latino team came highly recommended by the project’s director, Charles Randolph-Wright, who had helmed their play “Anthems” at the Washington, D.C. theater.

Jo Loesser liked “Anthems.” Equally important, she wholeheartedly approved of Randolph-Wright’s staging of “Guys and Dolls” at Arena Stage, a production that led her to entrust her husband’s last musical to his care.

After much negotiation, the new book for “Senor Discretion Himself” is being credited to “Frank Loesser with Culture Clash.”

“That alone ought to be the price of admission,” said Randolph-Wright, amused at the ultra-eclectic credit. As for any political incorrectness, he is not concerned. “This could be any small town,” he said. “The characters are iconoclastic, not stereotypical.” The concept of depicting unscrupulous clergymen may also have lost some of its eyebrow-raising effect over the past few years.

Culture Clash has a lock on playing the three priests, but the other major roles — a local baker, his two marriageable daughters and their boyfriends — are up for grabs.

Randolph-Wright has already directed two workshops of the “Senor Discretion Himself,” with two to come before the April 2004 world preem.

The show contains 17 Loesser tunes, all of them written for this musical.

“I remembered the songs as soon as I heard them again,” said Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director.

Randolph-Wright agreed: “After the first two bars, you know it is a real song.”