“Singin’ in the Rain” flopped on Broadway in 1985-1986--deservedly so, if you ask Don and Bonnie Ward, co-artistic directors of Starlight Musical Theatre.
But the Wards believe the show, with their direction and choreography, will sing on the stage of the Starlight Bowl when it opens Thursday.
They credit the show’s checkered past with allowing them to stretch creative muscles.
“It has never been successful,” said Don Ward at the Starlight rehearsal hall in Balboa Park. “It was a flop on Broadway, and everyone knows it. So it gives you license to see what you can do with it. This will be a new production.”
The stage musical “Singin’ in the Rain” was adapted from the 1952 MGM movie about the transition from silent to talking films. More than that, it’s about Gene Kelly dancing and singing in the rain, courting Debbie Reynolds in between tap dance numbers, and Donald O’Connor doing his best to “make ‘em laugh.”
Starting life as a popular movie proved to be the greatest strength and handicap for the fledgling musical five years ago. People who loved the movie flocked to the show, but they went wondering if the theater could recapture the magic. Would it really rain on stage? Could they forgive the actor who played the Gene Kelly part for not being Gene Kelly?
“42nd Street” made a successful transition from movie to stage in 1980 (it ran for eight years), but with “Singin’ in the Rain,” most critics felt Twyla Tharp, who directed and choreographed the show, did not find successful theatrical equivalents for film techniques.
She made it rain--everyone loved that part. And she didn’t tamper with the other classics: “Good Morning,” “Moses Supposes” and “Make ‘Em Laugh.” But criticism came down heavy for her failure to have one scene flow into the next and her tendency to throw in flash--extra chorus dancers and gimmicky effects--instead of anything memorably inventive.
And most found that leading man Don
Correia did not have the Kelly charisma.
It received 12 blistering reviews, including one from the New York Times, five mixed ones and four positive notices according to a roundup in Variety. It took everyone by surprise when it lasted close to one year.
Not surprisingly, the show was Tharp’s last Broadway venture to date. When the producers packaged the show for a national tour, they dumped Tharp’s choreography for that done by Peter Gennaro--the choreographer of the 1983 London version that preceded the Broadway debut by two years.
The Wards agree with the show’s criticism, with one important distinction. The Wards, who saw both the London and Broadway versions, always thought of the play as a good-hearted musical with terrific crowd-pleasing potential that wasn’t getting the direction it needed.
“I thought it was the worst produced show I have ever seen in my life,” said Don Ward of the $4.1-million New York extravaganza. “And I blame it all on Twyla Tharp.”
For one thing, the Wards feel that Tharp didn’t handle the dialogue well and pushed the spoken scenes off to the side of the stage.
For another, the team didn’t care for the people tap dancing in French Revolution costumes. That’s gone at Starlight, along with the segment on roller skates.
What the Wards cannot do anything about is what they both call the “albatross” of the original, inimitable movie-star casting.
So they hope that their staging, which uses musical bridges and montage movement to keep the scenes flowing, will make people judge the play on its own merits, without comparing it to the movie.
They also feel they have a lot riding on this show. The Wards want to produce more contemporary musicals, but they are feeling the pressure to deliver box-office business. Their season opener, “Follies,” a new show for Starlight, succeeded with critics but only filled about 55%-60% of the San Diego Civic Theatre.
Their casting of the Gene Kelly role shows how deeply invested the Wards are in this project.
Playing Don Lockwood at Starlight is the Wards’ son Kirby, a longtime professional actor, who last made a big “splash” at Starlight --literally and figuratively--in “My One and Only,” another role that calls for dancing in the water.
Producers must think of the two roles as a package deal. Correia, too, played the “My One and Only” role on Broadway before his “Singin’ in the Rain” stint.
Kirby Ward has also played “Singin’ in the Rain” at the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera company, along with leading lady Cynthia Ferrer as Kathy Seldon (the Debbie Reynolds role).
It’s not just coincidence that Kirby Ward and Ferrer were cast in both productions. One of the high costs of doing the show is that it requires film footage of the play’s stars to display their work in silent movies and then talkies.
Because of the special effects and costumes (among other things), the show will cost 25% to 30% more than any other Starlight production this year, said Don Ward, adding that the average show costs about $300,000.
San Bernardino and Starlight, by sharing the casting, split the cost of producing the film--a $10,000 expense.
A good idea. But last week, someone broke into the Wards’ car and stole a bag that contained two pairs of Don Ward’s tap shoes and the film.
The Wards called San Bernardino. only to find that the stolen film was the only completed copy, but there were some rushes available that could be edited into a second film. On Monday night, three days before opening, the Wards finally got to view the finished film.
They also struggled with the rain machine--a temperamental device that had been presenting a few challenges of its own. Also on Monday night, they finally got that to work.
Still, the Wards say--looking oddly cheerful for people who would have every reason to fear that “Singin’ in the Rain” may end up as “Raining on My Parade"--it is worth it.
“It really is a nightmare,” said Bonnie Ward. She shook her head and gave a little what-can-you-do? laugh.
“This is probably going to be the toughest show we’ve ever done.”
They looked at each other and smiled, appearing just a little tired. In a way, they agree, their ability to laugh at themselves is a quality they share with the show. It may well be the element Don Ward likes best about it.
“It’s one of my favorite movie musicals, along with ‘The Band Wagon,’ ” said Don Ward. It pokes fun at itself, and that’s fun. We hope we can capture some of that spirit.”