Repainting 'Red Shoes' for Broadway : The popular 1948 British movie is being transformed for the stage with the talent and inspiration of 87-year-old composer Jule Styne, whose credits include "Gypsy," "Funny Girl" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

From the start, the 1948 British film "The Red Shoes"--an expansive saga of the passionate and obsessive people who make up the fictitious Ballet Lermontov--has captivated people who might otherwise never have ventured near a ballet performance. Cinematically adventurous for its day, astutely cast, it weaves together a grim Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and the realistic on- and off-stage activities of a touring ballet troupe. The vibrant Technicolor period piece reaches across generations, especially to aspiring dancers.

So, at a time when an increasing number of new Broadway musicals tend to be adaptations of successful films, it's not all that surprising that "The Red Shoes" is about to open on Broadway on Dec. 16. A cast of 30 will bring the familiar story--which deals with the brilliant but heartless and manipulative impresario Boris Lermontov and the dedicated young dancer he hopes to guide toward greatness--to the stage. A creative team comprising Broadway veterans and relative newcomers is hoping that the blend of extended dance sequences with portrayals of volatile artistic temperaments that made the film memorable will have a similar impact in the theater.

The musical's road to opening night has been far from smooth, winding through a troubled rehearsal and preview period marked by significant firings, replacements and a delayed opening, all chronicled in the press. Originally, the director was Susan H. Schulman, whose credits include the 1991 Broadway musical "The Secret Garden." After guiding the show through a summer workshop, she was let go just before rehearsals began. Producer Martin Starger cited "creative differences" and put Stanley Donen, a veteran Hollywood director ("Singin' in the Rain"; "On the Town") but a Broadway newcomer, at the helm.

After several secondary roles were recast during rehearsals, the biggest change was announced just two weeks ago: Leading man Roger Rees (of "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Cheers" fame), set for the staring role of Lermontov, was out and his standby, Steve Barton, was in. For Rees, veteran of many classical and contemporary stage productions, "Red Shoes" would have marked his musical debut.

Heading the musical's creative team is Jule Styne, the venerable and much-lauded 87-year-old composer whose long list of hit shows includes "Gypsy," "Funny Girl" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who also collaborated on the recent musical "The Secret Garden," is responsible for the musical's book and (with Paul Stryker) lyrics.

Australian ballerina Margaret Illmann landed the crucial role of dancer Victoria Page, played by Moira Shearer in the film. Hugh Panaro, an alumnus of "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera," plays Julian Craster, the ambitious young composer who falls in love with her. Two former members of American Ballet Theatre also have featured roles: George de la Pena (who was Nijinsky in the 1981 film) is Grisha Ljubov, the temperamental ballet master and choreographer of the company, while Leslie Browne, who had leading roles in that film as well as "The Turning Point," is Irina Baronskaya, Lermontov's prima ballerina before Victoria Page comes along.

Styne has believed in--and fought for--"The Red Shoes" for a decade. He sought the rights to the story from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team that shared producing-writing-directing credits on the film, but found them unwilling to approve the project, even for a composer of his stature. But Styne was undeterred, and took matters into his own hands.

"Five years ago I decided I would extend myself, give a year of my life to write five ballets for the show," he recalls during an interview in his photo- and memorabilia-laden living room. "Then I invited them to come and hear why I wanted to do it. When they heard the music, they said to me, 'Mr. Styne, would you please do our show?'

"What made me want to present it on the stage was the final minute of the movie: the spotlight follows the ballerina around the set of the ballet she once performed, only she's not there. There's only the blank spaces, and a very slow curtain. It's very theatrical; it's a tragedy."

"I wrote about 80 songs for the show, to get the 14 that are in it. The show is set in the 1920s, and I tried to catch innuendoes of that period. Some of the music is very British-sounding. The ballet music is from the French school. I stayed away from the Russian sound."

For a musical in which dance plays such a major part, the question of a choreographer was crucial. "Every choreographer wanted to do this show," Styne claims. He consulted with his close friend and longtime collaborator Jerome Robbins (the two have worked together on shows dating back to the 1940s, but Robbins currently focuses on ballet projects rather than theater), who suggested the choreographer Lar Lubovitch. "I can't wait to tell him how right he was," an eager Styne exclaims.

Lubovitch, whose own company is marking its 25th anniversary (appearing at UCLA on Feb. 18-19) and whose previous Broadway credit was contributing musical staging to Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," struck some observers as a surprising choice. Expectations were that a choreographer more closely allied with classical ballet would get the nod. Lubovitch's works are performed by many ballet companies worldwide, but his choreography is closer to the modern dance tradition, and this musical marks the first time he has created dances for pointe shoes.

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While the technical crew attended details on the stage shortly before the start of previews, Lubovitch took a break to discuss his work on the show. He looks much younger than his 50 years and radiates a quiet confidence, even as he sounds a few defensive notes. "I was trained in both ballet and modern dance, and I performed with the Harkness Ballet. I don't feel I'm part of any one camp," he states. "I feel my own company aligns with contemporary dance; I find the term modern dance archaic. I'd say my work is closer to that of Agnes de Mille and Leonide Massine--the great character choreographers--and that's very appropriate for a dance like the ballet within this show."

As in the film, the musical's original "Red Shoes" ballet, which gives the heroine her greatest success, is a major dance work presented in its entirety. Drawing on the Andersen tale of the same title, it follows a young girl whose insistent desire to dance in a pair of red shoes has dire consequences. In the film, the 15-minute work, choreographed by Robert Helpmann, with Massine doing his own choreography for his role as the Shoemaker, became a cinematic fantasy that quickly abandoned the realistic confines of a stage performance. Clearly, for the musical, a very different approach was required.

"I've gone more in the direction of telling the Andersen story," Lubovitch explains. "I'm telling a linear tale rather than an abstract, metaphorical, surrealistic image of the story as the movie did."

From his earliest viewing of the film in his youth, Lubovitch noticed the closeness between his name and that of the film's choreographer Ljubov (portrayed by Massine). "I saw the film as the story of a choreographer who creates a great ballet, not the story of the girl," he remarks.

He reacted with initial skepticism when presented with the project, but went to hear Styne's score. "The music he had composed for the ballet was the deciding factor for me. It was very moving, and I felt immediately that I wanted to dance to it. For me, that was the main issue: wanting to choreograph this music."

The time frame of the 1920s (the film depicted its own period, the late 1940s) allows for a closer allusion to the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, to whom the character of Lermontov has often been compared, and opened up creative possibilities for Lubovitch. "The early '20s were a pinnacle moment for ballet," he remarks. "Our Ballet Lermontov is modeled on Diaghilev's company only in that it is a great creative dance company of its day. I have tried to create choreography that would have been modern for that time. "

For scenes of the ballet company in class, or rehearsing and performing excerpts from the classics, Lubovitch emphasized the softer, more rounded Cecchetti style that was part of his early training and which prevailed earlier in the century. "It's a more antiquated style than the leggy, high-flying classical dancer we know now."

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The choreographer auditioned more than 500 dancers to select his leading characters and the ensemble of 18 that he was to mold into the Ballet Lermontov. The cast includes dancers from ABT, New York City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Feld Ballet and Alvin Ailey.

The search for the pivotal role of Victoria Page was primarily Lubovitch's responsibility, and he recognized her as soon as she appeared. "Margaret Illmann was instantly my choice. There was no doubt in my mind that this was who I'd been looking for, and everybody else recognized it as well. She's simply a great creative dancer. This role required a great choreographer's instrument, because I had to create a major ballet for her. I needed a dancer who has creative insight and can share the process with me, and Margaret is that kind of dancer."

Virtually unknown in this country, Illmann, 28, is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada who has danced the lead roles in "Giselle," "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" to a chorus of critical acclaim. A delicate beauty with expressive eyes, she left the Australian Ballet in 1989 in search of new and different challenges.

"I had no concept of what Broadway would be like," she acknowledges over dinner in a restaurant near the theater. "I always loved acting at school, and I feel that I act when I dance. It's wonderful to be able to expand your horizons, not become too enclosed in your own world."

The role of Victoria Page brought instant celebrity to Shearer, who was just 21 and a rising young principal with the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet. Powell was certain she was the only one for the role and pursued her until he overcame her reluctance to interrupt her career with the company.

Illmann, a new face to New York audiences (although she has performed on the West Coast), faces the possibility of similar sudden fame. She has several dances--an improvisation when she auditions for Lermontov; a montage during which she does brief bits from various classics, and the 20-minute title ballet--along with quite a few acting scenes and one solo song.

"The red shoes represent Vicky's love of dance, her aspirations," Illmann observes. "In the ballet, they lead her into situations she wouldn't normally be in. She gets carried away and can't stop. She's an extremely emotional woman in a very modern situation. These two great loves of her life, two forces demanding total possession, can't be brought together."

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The film depicts the ballerina confronting a choice between two absolutes. Lermontov demands complete dedication to her art and will not tolerate her marriage ("the dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer," he proclaims), while her husband Julian wants her all to himself. The plot has always reminded viewers of Diaghilev's dismissal of Nijinsky when the famed danseur dared to marry, and it rather accurately prefigured George Balanchine's confrontation with his favored muse Suzanne Farrell when she married in 1969.

Today, when many women in ballet companies are married, Vicky's all-or-nothing dilemma can appear melodramatically exaggerated, but Illmann recognizes some truth in it: "There are times when the theater does rule your life. People don't quite understand the sense of responsibility in a dancer's career."

"The choice Victoria Page had to make always stayed with me," recalls Leslie Browne, an ABT principal until 1991. "It was one of the things that influenced me, when I was dancing, to make sure I wasn't so obsessed that I forgot about everything else." For Browne, who makes her Broadway debut in "The Red Shoes," the movie rings true on several counts. "Usually, ballet films are fluffy and superficial. This one had a lot of weight to it; there were recognizable people with real problems."

George de la Pena, who has concentrated on acting in recent years, keeping busy with films and television, is similarly impressed with the film. "What's so great about it is the truth in the characterizations and situations," he observes in his dressing room during a rehearsal break. Preparing the stage version, he is intrigued by the dynamics among the protagonists. "We're depicting important influences in a young girl's life. Vicky Page is a potential great artist. We--Lermontov, Grisha--are the influences who will help this incredible flower to blossom, We are the catalysts."

A Los Angeles resident, De la Pena was happily lured back to New York (where his last Broadway appearance was in the hit revival of "On Your Toes") by this project. "I love Jule Styne's music, and to be in one of his original shows is a thrill. It's a fascinating process to be in on the creation of a musical. It's my first time being involved from the ground floor up. New discoveries are made every day. It's a wonderful role, creating a real person who's bigger than life. I've known a few of them in my lifetime," he notes, declining to name names.

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The musical is nearing the end of previews and is the subject of much speculation in a revival-heavy season. Recent film-derived musicals, such as "'Nick and Nora" and "The Goodbye Girl," have not fared well, and the opening "Paper Moon" has been postponed.

Some eyebrows were raised when the show's initial television commercial consisted entirely of footage from the film. Because the rights to the film were made available, the show's press agent explained, this made for an economical interim ad at a time when the show was not yet up and running.

It also suggested, however, that the producers are leaning heavily on nostalgia for the movie. That recognition factor could open doors, as people are drawn in by a proven, much-admired classic--or it could backfire. As Illmann remarks: "The awareness of the film is both wonderful and a nemesis. There is a high level of expectation, but this show is an original entity and will have its own uniqueness."

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