As his actors run through a crucial scene — one in which hopes are dashed and the plot is thickened — director Sheldon Epps watches with a contemplative eye.
"Good," Epps says at the scene's end, his elegant baritone filling the Pasadena Playhouse rehearsal space. "Let's do it again. But this time, I want you to take every pause out."
The actors look up.
"You may get them back," he says reassuringly. "Let's try it."
Afterward, amid approving nods, Epps explains. "The content is not farce, but the texture of it is. Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate," he says. "You were taking more time than you needed."
Attention to tone and timing is essential in this production, the world premiere of "Sleepless in Seattle — the Musical." The show, which opens a three-week run Sunday, is based on director Nora Ephron's 1993 romantic comedy in which strangers must decide if they will keep a date with destiny and each other. The answer is clear almost from the start, but that's beside the point.
"This isn't about suspense, it's about anticipation," Epps says later. "People want to see how the journey unfolds, what magical events push the lovers together."
In re-imagining that journey for the theater, the creative team has tried to enhance the magic — through music, staging and design — while maintaining dramatic momentum.
"Even though you know what's coming," says Epps, "if you move the events along quickly enough there's hope the ending will still sneak up on people."
The musical, which has a book by Jeff Arch and a score by Ben Toth and Sam Forman, stays true to the plot of the movie (for which Arch wrote the original story and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Ephron and David S. Ward).
Young Jonah calls a radio show seeking a new love for his dad, Sam, a widowed architect in Seattle. Sam ends up talking on the nationally broadcast program about how much he misses his wife, intriguing listeners around the country, including Annie, a Baltimore reporter who's engaged to a nice guy but finds her soul stirred by this voice in the night.
The TriStar Pictures film was a box-office hit, its fans drawn to its unabashed love story, stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and a now-famous final scene atop the Empire State Building.
"When you take a project with such iconic source material, you have to figure out how to transform it into a creature for the stage so you aren't just doing 'the movie' and sticking some songs in," says Epps.
That can be a tricky proposition, so tricky that the production's premiere was postponed for a year. The show has been revamped and new songwriters brought in. Epps, the playhouse's artistic director, assumed directing duties in January.
The decision to delay was difficult, he says. "But it gave us time to get things where we want them."
'Great things' happen
In the mid-1980s Arch had taken a break from writing after critics ripped his 1985 off-Broadway play "For Sale." The birth of his second child in 1989 prompted him to try again. "How could I tell my kids about going after their dreams if I didn't go after mine?"
His play had lacked "a big ending," he says. So he began what would become his first produced screenplay with the finale — an Empire State Building rendezvous inspired by memories of a college girlfriend sobbing over Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr's thwarted reunion in the 1957 movie "An Affair to Remember."
"I knew where my characters had to end up," says Arch, 58, a Malibu resident who has written for film and television. "But I didn't know how to get them there…. Then, being a parent, I realized we do for our kids what we don't do for ourselves." So Jonah went to New York to find Annie, and Sam went to find Jonah in a tale that combines romance with "the yearning we all have to believe great things can happen."
Arch and his business partner, David Shor, a Santa Barbara-based entertainment executive, had discussed making "Sleepless" into a musical. About seven years ago, says Shor, "I approached Sony about the rights and asked Jeff if he would work on the book." A few years later, Shor talked with the playhouse. Impressed with Epps, then-executive director Stephen Eich and the theater's record of sending works to New York and London, he asked Pasadena to join in developing the show with hopes of a Broadway or West End run. A June 2012 premiere was announced.
Arch wrote the libretto. Oscar and Grammy winner Leslie Bricusse originally was set to create the score but was succeeded by Michelle Citrin, Michael Garin and Josh Nelson. After the opening was postponed in early 2012 they all departed, as did director Joel Zwick. (Epps took over after a stint by Lonny Price.)
"Some great music had been written, but it wasn't enough for a whole show," says Shor. "We also realized we needed a sound that was contemporary and yet timeless. That was a tough combination to find … until we found Ben and Sam."
When he learned "Sleepless" was looking for songwriters, Toth, 35, an L.A.-based composer and vocal coach, called one of his writing partners, Forman, 36, a New York-based playwright, lyricist and writer for Netflix's "House of Cards." Within 48 hours they finished what would become one of the musical's main numbers, based on Sam's radio ode to his wife.
Their demo led to their joining the project last summer. Toth describes their score as "a little pop, not Top 40 pop, narrative- and character-driven music with a crunch" (meaning "even when you're sure about something there's that underlying fear and doubt … that sense of a little rub.")
Readings for "Sleepless" had been held in New York and Pasadena. More readings and work sessions with the new score and the Playhouse cast, which includes several Broadway veterans, "gave us a head start" just before rehearsals began in April, says Epps.
Colleagues credit him with guiding the production through its twists and turns, one citing "the value of his wisdom and résumé." Among the Broadway shows Epps has directed: "Blues in the Night," "Play On!" and "Baby It's You!," (which he co-directed with Floyd Mutrux).
Arch says Epps helped him make the move from screen to stage — a transition Epps says was especially challenging because "a book writer who wrote the source material often is asked to give up the big moment and allow it to be expressed musically." Arch also had to distill his work: "Sometimes, I had four lines where I had three pages in the movie."
A challenge for the creative team, says Epps, was telling a love story whose lovers don't meet until the end. "We show the connection between them theatrically," he says. Sam (Tim Martin Gleason) and Annie (Chandra Lee Schwartz) often share the stage when they are thousands of miles apart. John Iacovelli's set, which features staircases and projection screens, enables the action to flow from place to place and between real time and reverie.
Musical moments link the couple. "Sam and Annie are on opposite sides of the country, and they are singing duets," says Forman. "They don't know they are in harmony, but they are."
"Let's make some music."
Everyone cheers as music director David O starts the "sitzprobe," the first chance for actors and orchestra to perform together. This is an exciting event in a new musical's life, when songs learned at the rehearsal piano take flight as singers join, in this case, a nine-musician ensemble that sounds twice that size thanks to orchestrations by Tony winner Michael Starobin.
Understudy Charissa Hogeland, subbing for an ailing Schwartz, draws whoops for belting one number. During another, the cast breaks into an impromptu dance. (Work is being done tonight — and a lot more lies ahead, especially once previews begin in a few days — but people are ready for fun.)
In the middle of the house, Toth leans forward, beaming, while Forman sits back and mouths the words. For the second act's songs, they are in the front row. When Joe West, who plays Jonah, sings the musical's last line, Forman sings with him.
"It's overwhelming," Toth says later, describing how it felt to hear his score performed. "You know it's coming," he adds, as if echoing Epps. "But it's just overwhelming."