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‘Lestat’ revamps for Broadway

Elton John musical stakes its life on massive overhaul

How do you revive a vampire that’s already been staked through the heart?

That’s the question the creative team behind the big-budget Broadway offering “Lestat” has been scrambling to answer.

When the $10 million tuner, based on Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles novels and featuring a score by Elton John, tried out in San Francisco earlier this season, its tumultuous engagement included a midrun cast change and the addition of a creative consultant.

Local press damned it with a nasty critical drubbing. (Insert rim-shots about garlic, holy crosses and sucking here.)

But after “Lestat” shuttered in San Fran Jan. 29, the show’s creators — including lyricist and longtime John collaborator Bernie Taupin, book writer Linda Woolverton, director Robert Jess Roth and producer Gregg Maday, exec veep of Warner Bros. Theater Ventures — declared themselves bloodied but unbowed and reiterated their commitment to opening at Broadway’s Palace Theater April 25.

Then they went to work.

“We’re putting a new opening in. We’re redoing the Paris sequence. We’ve redone the mother scene. We’re continually redoing,” Maday says of the production, which has been in previews since March 25.

“The show we have now is at least 70% different from the show in San Francisco,” Taupin estimates.

Stakes are high for this revamped “Lestat.”

The production marks Warner’s first foray into theatrical production — and a first attempt to muscle in on Disney Theatrical territory.

Given the show’s reception on the West Coast, there’s also the possibility that “Lestat” could rep the first legit flop for John, whose “The Lion King,” “Aida” and “Billy Elliott” have made him one of the most viable crossovers from pop stardom to theatrical turf.

And let’s not forget the vampire curse: Tuners about bloodsuckers, including “Dracula” in 2004 and “Dance of the Vampires” in 2002, have been notoriously unsuccessful on Broadway.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Maday acknowledges. “When people yell at your baby, it’s not a fun thing,” says Roth (“Beauty and the Beast”) of the San Fran experience. He adds that he happily sought the advice of musical staging consultant Jonathan Butterell (“The Light in the Piazza”) for his outside perspective.

And all involved agree the critical reaction was useful — and not entirely off-base. “It was a good wake-up call,” Taupin says.

Rice’s novels instill anguished human souls in her vampires, especially her best-known character, the seductive and immortal Lestat. Tuner takes on the first two vampire volumes, “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat.”

Consensus said the early versions of the musical crammed in too much of Rice’s story and world, leaving no time to develop Lestat into a rich lead.

” ‘Simplify’ is our big word here,” Roth says.

Which means sacrificing scenes, songs and story points.

“You have to be prepared to weep on occasion,” Taupin says.

An opening sequence with Lestat in the present day, typing his story on a laptop? Tossed. In its place is a scene in which Lestat first tastes the allure of blood, when he, still human, kills a pack of rampaging wolves.

A finale involving Enkil and Akasha, two major figures in Rice’s mythology? Cut. Instead, two prominent characters from the vamp’s past arrive just when he’s at his lowest.

“Kingdom of the Moon” and “Nothing Here,” a couple of songs John and Taupin wrote for the show? You won’t hear them. Two tunes written since San Fran — “Beautiful Boy” and “Right Before My Eyes” — were added to deepen the characters of Lestat’s mother (Carolee Carmello) and Lestat (Hugh Panaro), respectively.

Also gone is Jack Noseworthy, the thesp who originally played Lestat’s nemesis, Armand. He was replaced during San Fran previews with the taller, darker Drew Sarich.

“Jack was cast per the book,” Maday says. “But we didn’t have the stage time to develop Armand as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He needed to look physically like a worthy adversary.”

The creatives also have fine-tuned the show’s homoeroticism, turning it up a notch from the ambiguity noted in the San Fran version.

Does that raise commercial concerns? “Yes, it was a conversation,” Maday says. “But that’s what our story is.”

The team also is putting in changes based on how moments play during previews.

To wit: “Do you sing before you’re about to put your boyfriend in the fire, or after?” Woolverton asks. (Before, it turns out.)

“And you can’t make any change without the ripple effect of everything changing, whether it be orchestrations, or lights or projections,” Maday adds.

Throughout all the backstage drama, John, busy with other commitments, has been a far less hands-on presence than Taupin, Woolverton and Roth, writing songs quickly and handing them over.

Work on the show started five-and-a-half years ago, when Roth pitched the idea to John, a longtime fan of Rice’s novels. In 2003, Taupin, Woolverton and Roth hammered out their structure for the story during a Vegas gathering they’ve dubbed “vampire boot camp.”

John’s distance from the process suits Roth.

“Elton staying out of the day-to-day has been very helpful, because he comes with a clean eye and a clean ear,” he says.

Rice has been supportive but never wanted to be involved. “She says collaboration isn’t her thing,” Roth explains.

That leaves Taupin, Woolverton, Roth and Maday as guiding forces for the show.

“There are tantrums thrown all the time,” Taupin says. “We all have our hissy fits.”

“We definitely all scream and yell at each other,” Woolverton adds. “But not in a destructive way.”

“Overall, we are trying to create more of a through line for Lestat,” Maday says. “Which is tough, because as a picaresque hero — which he is — people come and go in his life. In retrospect, it probably would have been an easier dramaturgical job to narrow the focus, but we wanted to encompass the arc of this character and all of the adventure in his life.

“Do I wish we’d done it differently?” he asks. “I don’t know. Maybe in a couple months I’ll have an answer.”

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