When a major regional theater outside New York develops a new musical, there's almost always a commercial producer involved. That commercial producer invariably comes with his or her checkbook.
It's a win-win. When, say, the La Jolla Playhouse or the Berkeley Repertory Theatre of California premieres some Broadway-bound title like "Jersey Boys" or "American Idiot," the regional theater gets a more expansive and potentially crowd-pleasing production than it could produce on its own. In turn, the producer gets to debut material in a more affordable and supportive setting, with a guaranteed audience, allowing changes to be made and greater risks taken later.
But throughout its history, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire has, more often than not, gone it alone.
That's partly because Marriott is a theater in the round, which is not ideal if you are trying out a show for Broadway. It's also because the people who run this suburban theater have generally preferred to work with the same small, tight group of people. This is not a theater that routinely imports projects. Almost all of its shows are designed by the same design team, the group of regular directors is small, and relationships with leading Broadway producers are less developed than with some peer institutions. Marriott likes to circle the wagons.
That said, you certainly can't fault a theater for cooking up its own projects from scratch, where those that run the joint can keep their eyes on the chefs.
That was the case with the last new musical at the Marriott, "The Bowery Boys" (2009), with a book by local director and frequent Marriott face David H. Bell.
And it's certainly the case with the latest Marriott premiere, "For the Boys," which opens Friday. The idea of adapting the 1991 movie starring Bette Midler and James Caan about a pair of USO performers who entertain troops during World War II, the Korean War and in Vietnam came from Aaron Thielen, the co-artistic director at the Marriott.
"It has taken me two years from the beginning of the idea to getting this show onstage," Thielen said in a recent interview in downtown Chicago. "But now I'm finally seeing what I first saw in my head."
Marc Robin, a Marriott regular with a formidable track record, will direct the show, which stars Michele Ragusa and Timothy Gulan. This will be Thielen's first musical.
The score to "For the Boys" is not original, but uses popular numbers from the ubiquitous American songbook. So did the source movie, which featured the likes of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," many of which were zestfully performed by Midler, who received an Academy Award nomination.
Thielen said the show has been conceived very much as a tribute to the USO and its workers. The private, nonprofit agency — which has the motto "Until Every One Comes Home" — has a long and glorious history of providing entertainment and other morale-boosting activities for U.S. military personnel. Although it has shown up in several Hollywood movies, there has not been a live show that has specifically dealt with its contribution. Until now. Marriott producer Terry James said that the USO, which was founded in 1941 and is based in Arlington, Va., is cooperating with "For the Boys" and has provided a lot of materials that will be used in and around the theater.
The movie follows the lives of the two entertainers — named Dixie Leonard and Eddie Sparks — across several decades, and through several wars. But Thielen says that "For the Boys" will remain musically rooted in the big-band era, rather than suddenly switching to the harder edges of, say, the music of the Vietnam era, albeit with some tonal modifications as times change.
Video images of real soldiers will be used in the show. "We want to take people and make them feel like they really are there," Thielen said.
Marriott does not take on new works that frequently; once every couple of years is typical. The audience of more than 30,000 subscribers is used to a diet of classic titles and recent Broadway hits, often retooled in Lincolnshire. And, as James notes, Marriott is not set up to workshop titles or put up skeleton productions. Its shows have long runs. There are certain expectations.
"You are always the most vulnerable with a new show," James said. "We're really putting ourselves out there for our subscribers."
Of course, people in the theater like working on new shows. If the risks are greater, then so are the rewards. And the many performers who have worked for the USO know a thing or two about that particular equation.
"For the Boys" runs through Oct. 16 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire; tickets are $41-$49 at 847-634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com
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