O.C. THEATER : Top Broadway Lyricist Adapts Capra's Classic : Stage: Sheldon Harnick entrusts 'It's a Wonderful Life' to the Laguna Playhouse for a holiday staging. The musical opens Dec. 5.

When Sheldon Harnick arrived in New York many years ago as a green kid from the Midwest, Ogden Nash gave him a job as his assistant. Harnick was so excited that he bought a volume of his illustrious employer's collected verse and asked him to sign it.

Nash, whose writings are known for their burlesque rhymes, complied with a dedication couched in one of his typically clever couplets: To Sheldon Harnick / the one-man philharmonic. Nearly four decades later, Harnick still treasures that moment. "It was," he remembers, "thrilling."

It was also prophetic.

The 65-year-old Chicago native has since become a master of the musical stage acknowledged even by Frank Rich, the much-feared drama critic of the New York Times, as "perhaps the only Broadway lyricist of the last 25 years who can be mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Sondheim."

Harnick's credits read like a catalogue of theatrical jewels, topped by the Tony Award-winning "Fiddler on the Roof" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello!"--his two most famous collaborations with composer Jerry Bock--as well as a highly acclaimed translation of Georges Bizet's "La Tragedie de Carmen" for the Houston Grand Opera.

Now Harnick has turned attention to a musical adaptation of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," which will open Dec. 5 at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre. The stage version of the classic 1946 movie features Harnick's libretto and lyrics set to the music of Joe Raposo, who died earlier this year and was best known for public TV's "Sesame Street" tunes.

"We've done a big show," Harnick said in a recent interview. "I think there must be about 20 songs. One choice would have been to do it as Andrew Lloyd Webber does his shows, with music throughout. But I felt the story is so strong you don't need to do that. It's a true book musical."

The movie, which starred James Stewart, tells of George Bailey, a small-town hero who gives up his youthful ambitions and reluctantly succeeds his father as head of the family-run Building and Loan Assn., which he keeps from going bankrupt, at great personal sacrifice, during a depositors' panic.

Because of the machinations of the town's richest man and his own sense of personal failure, however, Bailey comes to believe the world would have been better off without him. It takes a guardian angel trying to earn his wings in heaven to foil Bailey's suicide attempt and show him what life in his town would have been like had he never been born.

In view of the catastrophic collapse of the Irvine-based Lincoln Savings and Loan Assn., Harnick could not have found a more topical story to adapt for the stage. Needless to say, Bailey's self-sacrificing concern for the plight of his depositors provides an ironic contrast with the alleged fraud of Lincoln's owner, Phoenix millionaire Charles H. Keating Jr.

But what prompted Harnick to adapt the movie was not the crisis in the thrift industry at all. He began his collaboration with Raposo in 1980, long before anybody foresaw the financial debacle. Rather, it was the poignant drama of a man struggling with real and imagined flaws in himself that drew Harnick to the project.

"I've loved that film for years and years," he said. "I feel in my own life I've made many mistakes. I've failed in many directions. And I'm very moved by the notion of a man who believes the depth of his failure is so great that he's willing to kill himself. When he finds, despite all, that life is worth living, it's an enormous theme."

Harnick, who was still making minor script adjustments at a recent chorus rehearsal, said he debated the idea of changing the story but finally decided his libretto would stick close to the plot of what has become, after all, an American Christmas fable. He even chose to use some of the movie monologues verbatim.

At the same time, he altered the names of certain characters "to gain at least a little distance" from the original. George Bailey is now called Frank Bailey; his wife, Mary, is now Kathy; the villainous Potter is Miller. The angel is still Clarence, though, and the town is still New Bedford.

"The risk of not changing anything is that you will be compared to a classic," Harnick said. "On the other hand, the movie is a favorite for so many people that if you do change anything, they'll say you've ruined it."

Either way, simply by creating a musical version, he was obliged to transform Capra's material.

"The movie gives you a close-up of Jimmy Stewart," Harnick said. "You just look into his eyes and kind of think what he's feeling. You don't know precisely, but you think you do. On stage we can't give you that. Not only can't we, but it's a good idea to take those moments and expand them."

The medium of song allows the audience in on the characters' feelings, enabling "a musical to explore more fully some things the movie doesn't," he said.

Where the movie hints at Bailey's relationship with his father during a brief dinner scene, for example, the musical can elaborate on the nature of their bond by having the father offer a song called "One of the Lucky Ones."

"Big musical moments" may also encompass entire scenarios. Taking a cue from Lloyd Webber, Harnick said he decided to heighten the effect of climactic episodes by treating them as self-contained "mini-operas within the musical comedy form." One is the run on the Building and Loan at the end of the first act; the other is the "unborn sequence" at the end of the second act, showing what the town would have been like without Bailey.

A lyricist's agenda can also be whimsical. When another second-act song was needed, Harnick decided to give it to an Italian family that figures in the story because it was a chance to write "a paean to linguine," one of his favorite dishes.

The agenda can be privately serious, as well. "There is a love song in this show called 'I Couldn't Be With Anyone but You,' " he said. "Only my wife knows that almost every image in that lyric is about her."

For all his prizes and the high esteem of the critics, Harnick has never been able to get a Broadway production of "It's a Wonderful Life." There was talk of one in the early '80s, but the plans failed to materialize.

"The problem is simply one of money," Harnick said. "Over the years it has become so prohibitively expensive to mount a new show in New York--$5 million to $6 million--that the producers want a proven product. So they import, from England or from wherever they can get a show with a track record."

Thus, Broadway's loss turned out to be the Laguna Playhouse's gain. "It's a Wonderful Life," which had a campus production three years ago at the University of Michigan, is being presented as a non-subscription Christmas show, in the expectation that it will become a holiday-season perennial for the amateur company.

"We'd been searching for years for something we could do for Christmas that hasn't been done to death," said Douglas Rowe, who heads the Playhouse and is directing the show. "And what Sheldon is hoping to accomplish is to create interest for an eventual grass-roots tour around the country."

The show will star Ralph Bruneau as Bailey and Valerie Perri as his wife. Both are professional actors brought in for the occasion. Bruneau, who made his Off-Broadway stage debut in "The Fantasticks," has starred as Mike Doonesbury in Broadway's "Doonesbury." Perri has starred as Evita Peron, both in the Los Angeles production of "Evita" and on the national tour.

"We auditioned the top musical talent on the West Coast," Rowe noted. "I mean, we looked at the leads from 'Lez Miz,' four of the five guys who played the princes in 'Into the Woods,' one guy who played Che on Broadway in 'Evita.'

"This is a dream I've always had here," he added, "to take our top people and put them with consummate professionals. Everyone is aware that it's an opportunity of a lifetime to work with someone of Sheldon's caliber. Our people will gain by the experience, and the audience will see some incredible work."

For his part, Harnick seemed equally pleased. With a score in hand, he stood one evening at the rehearsal pianist's shoulder and followed the chorus performances, led by musical director Mark Turnbull.

Sometimes Harnick stopped the music in mid-song to indicate an error in tempo or phrasing. Other times he jotted down notes. Most of all, he watched with delight, offering quick comments of confirmation and praise.

"It's been wonderful," he said later. "They are, I think, rising to the challenge."

"It's a Wonderful Life" opens Dec. 5 at the Moulton Theatre and will run through Dec. 17. The theater is at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Performances are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.; matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $17. Information: (714) 494-8022.

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