Chicago hosts ‘The Century’ test

Goodman takes pricey 'Turn' for a spin

The Goodman Theater isn’t calling the tuner “The Turn of the Century” a Broadway tryout. But with a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (the “Jersey Boys” writing team), producer Elizabeth I. McCann attached, director Tommy Tune and stars Jeff Daniels and Rachel York, can New York be far behind?

“That’s why we’re all here,” says Daniels of the creatives involved in the show, which begins performances Sept. 19 in Chicago and just extended a week. “We’re hopeful.”

For the Goodman, “Turn of the Century” will become one of its most expensive productions to date, certainly the largest show within its $17 million season. And as it endeavors to compete for national attention with other high-profile Chi theater companies such as Steppenwolf, which has “August: Osage County” on Broadway, the Goodman has thrown its full institutional support behind the musical.

Daniels plays Billy, a talented but not-so-successful cocktail pianist with a taste for the ladies, while York plays Dixie, an aspiring chanteuse who has some baggage with Billy. The pair find themselves teamed for a New Year’s Eve event on Dec. 31, 1999. But when the clock strikes midnight, Billy and Dixie are transported back to 1900, and Tthe two find fame and fortune when they decide to write, or rather steal, some of the great American songs they discover have not yet been written.

The tuner originated as an unproduced screenplay by Brickman, and found new life when he and Elice were looking for another project after collaborating on “Jersey Boys.”

“Rick has been educating me on musical theater,” says Brickman, best known for his screenplays with Woody Allen. “The piece changed from being a buddy story, with two guys, into something much more romantic.”

According to Elice, the process has been similar to “Jersey Boys.” “It’s different because this is a work of fiction, and we’re not bound by any requirements other than to be theatrically smart,” he explains. But the collaborators approached it the same way they did their Frankie Valli bio: “We set out to write a really good play whose engine is the music.”

The score includes some of the 20th century’s most beloved tunes, although exactly which ones remains somewhat secretive in the hope of creating surprises. In fact, the program won’t include a song list — just, for legal reasons, a list of composers.

Irving Berlin will be well represented — his songs “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” are included in the show. But there will also be songs from less obvious candidates like Barry Manilow and Prince.

Tune calls the piece “a study in anachronism,” with the idea being to create a context for the songs that will enhance the audience’s ability to hear standards again as if for the first time, all while advancing a character-driven tale.

Tune has brought in Maury Yeston, with whom he collaborated on “Nine,” to write additional songs, and hired his own choreographer, young dancer Noah Racey.

“I needed help,” says Tune. “Our map could go anywhere. Every other show I’ve ever done has either been based on a clear story or on someone’s life. Here, we’re our own source.”

This also marks the first time Tune has worked in a regional theater environment, and while he’s a bit alarmed by having “only 10 previews,” the Goodman has proven a nurturing space to work on a show with so many moving pieces.

“I like to be in touch with everyone,” says Tune. “But if we were rehearsing in New York, we’d be rehearsing uptown, there’d be a costume fitting downtown, and I’d never see it. Here, I just go downstairs.”

“You’re sort of on location,” explains Brickman. “You go to dinner with each other, and you live it 24 hours. You even dream about it. It’s sort of like the old MGM lot. Good stuff comes when people get to interact like that.”

The collaborators’ talk about the process makes it seem as if the show is being written on its feet. Brickman and Elice have made changes on two-thirds of the script pages, and costume designer Dona Granata has come up with new ideas as she watches Racey shape the choreography.

The show’s cost is comparable to the Goodman’s 2003 production ofStephen Sondheim musical “Bounce” and to artistic director Robert Falls’ extravagant “King Lear,” which in 2006 celebrated his 20th anniversary with the theater. Producer McCann is providing enhancement money.

That added coin allows the Goodman to stage a more lavish production, plus they get to sell subscriptions based on a season opener with star names involved, while the commercial producers get the benefits of the theater’s facilities and budget.

“It’s a great model,” says Goodman exec director Roche Schulfer, who believes this type of risky creative endeavor benefits from an overlap in the missions of nonprofit and commercial theater. “It enables us to do something on a scale we couldn’t do, and it enables the commercial interests and the artists to see what they have in a somewhat less pressure-cooker environment than a true pre-Broadway tryout.”

If all goes as planned, Brickman says the show “should be funny, believable, fanciful, emotional. A full meal, as my mother would say.”