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‘Romance’ on Broadway Gives Cues for San Diego

Harris Goldman, new executive producer of the San Diego Civic Light Opera, dreams of the day when Starlight can commission its own original musicals. He might take a cue from the New York pair of Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann, who know how to do it and, most important of all these days, do it affordably.

Harman, scheduled to direct his and Herrmann’s Broadway hit “Romance Romance” at the Old Globe Theatre beginning in January, left a lucrative job in television (writing for “The Carol Burnett Show,” “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”) to pursue a career in musical theater 10 years ago.

Never mind that in the past decade, critics have increasingly wondered if the American musical--the only indigenous form of American music other than jazz--had been KO’d by such imported chandelier crashers as “Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.”

Never mind that when Harman and Herrmann embarked on their first artistic collaboration, “Romance Romance,” not a single major producer came forward to back it.

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Harman and Herrmann found independent producers and brought the work in for under $1 million, using four characters and a modest seven-piece orchestra to tell separate one-act stories about love and longing, one set in 19th-Century Vienna, the other in a modern-day beach house in East Hampton, Long Island.

It was given birth in March by the Actors Outlet in Manhattan. When the starless show moved May 1 to Broadway’s relatively small Helen Hayes Theatre--just at the deadline for Antoinette Perry (Tony) consideration--it was dubbed by those working behind the scenes as “The Little Show That Could.”

It won five nominations but no Tonys in a year in which the competition was Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” Still, the reviews were good, and the show is still going strong.

Just seeing “Romance Romance” butt marquees with “Phantom” and “Les Miz” has been a dream come true for Harman, the former scriptwriter who continues to dabble in the occasional pilot just to pay the bills.

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Harman has other dreams already in the works.

Now working with Herrmann on a musical adaptation of a Joseph Heller novel he refuses to name until the rights are secured, he said that, although a hit musical makes a difference, it doesn’t make the next show easy.

“People look on you as being what they call more bankable,” Harman said. “But theater is a very difficult business. I’m working the same way I’ve always worked--day by day. But it does make you feel better when you wake up in the morning. It makes you feel you weren’t totally crazy for going into this business.”

Sarah Luft, senior producer in production and development at KPBS-TV, did not intend to play talent scout last January when she and her daughter went to see the work one of her classmates had done at the annual California Young Playwrights Project at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre.

“We were enchanted by the program,” Luft said. “I thought it would be inspiring and wonderful to do one of the plays both for broadcast and schoolrooms.”

The play selected for a March taping and June airing is not the play she and daughter Catherine went to see--Karen Hartman’s “And One Bell Shattered"--but Josefina Lopez’s “Simply Maria or the American Dream.”

Luft said she would like to do Hartman’s play as well if she can somehow find the money to turn “Simply Maria” into the first of a California Young Playwrights series.

Ruby Keeler, the original Peggy Sawyer in the movie that inspired the hit Broadway musical “42nd Street,” doesn’t like to miss West Coast productions of the play, but no one takes the appearance of this film and stage legend for granted.

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So, Starlight readied a dozen red roses for Keeler’s promised appearance last night at its opening of “42nd Street” at the Civic Theatre. It’s a kind of old-home week in other ways as well.

Jon Engstrom, a dancer in the original “42nd Street,” who re-created the original Gower Champion choreography for Starlight, had his Broadway dancing debut in a show in which Keeler starred: the 1971 Broadway revival of “No, No, Nanette.” From here, Engstrom flies to Houston to direct the original cast of Broadway’s “42nd Street"--Tammy Grimes, Wanda Richert and Leeroy Reams--for Theatre Under the Stars.

Yes, Virginia, there are rewards for tastelessness. If you can write 100 words worth of tabloid dementia by Wednesday, and mail it to Laura Preble at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza in San Diego, you may win dinner and tickets for two to the one-year anniversary performance of “Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want To Know,” on Oct. 28.


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