A Cinderella Story of His Own : Larry Hart didn't just write 'Sisterella'--he's able to walk the walk and talk the talk 'cause he's been there.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

The third-floor rehearsal studio of the Pasadena Playhouse is rockin'. Several rows of hip young dancers in street togs and workout wear jam to a heavy beat as they move across the crowded room. Heads jut forward and back, hands strike sharp-angled poses in the air, and legs strut in syncopated time as the booming sound drives them.

Meanwhile, just inches from the dreadlocked, pierced and otherwise adorned hoofers, a man in a chartreuse silk jacket leans over the studio barre, grinning with satisfaction at what he sees. That, says a publicist to a reporter, is "one of the money men."

The scene could pass for a work session for a new MTV video. But it's actually a run-through of one of the numbers in Larry Hart's new musical, "Sisterella," which opens at the Playhouse next Sunday.

The presence of the power player, of course, is a tip-off that this is no routine theater outing. Indeed, pop icon Michael Jackson and Jerry Greenberg of MJJ Music put up the money for the musical's development and are backing the upcoming cast album as well.

And the high-profile support doesn't stop there. Less than two weeks ago, it was announced that Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions and Disney's Miramax Films had joined together to purchase both the film and Broadway rights to the show.

Based on the classic tale of Cinderella, "Sisterella" sets the story in turn-of-the-century New York, where the heroine, Ella (Della Miles), is about to inherit her late father's money. She finds, unfortunately, that she must first contend with an evil stepmother (Yvette Louis Cason) who's determined to keep the fortune for herself.

"Sisterella" is also a kind of Cinderella story for Hart, who wrote the show's book, lyrics and score. Although he won a Grammy in 1980 for his rendition of the gospel standard "What a Friend" and had penned songs for the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Kenny Rogers, Andrae Crouch, Ozzy Osbourne and others, the singer-songwriter was in a slump when he started working on the musical.

"When I started writing this, I was working possibly the rattiest piano bar in Van Nuys for $100 a night, once a week, singing five hours a night, with hostile chain-smoking patrons who wanted to hear show tunes," says the black-clad yet cherub-faced Hart, in an afternoon interview at the Playhouse. "So this has been an amazing transition in my life."

Although it might seem unlikely, Hart, who is white, isn't straying far from his own background. "I have always grown up in the middle of African American culture, so I certainly didn't even give [writing a predominantly African American musical] a second thought," he says. "And I've never encountered any resistance."

Besides, he says, color isn't of central importance to "Sisterella." "Even though the principals are African American, it's not a 'black musical,' " Hart says. "It's a story about people."

The Dallas-born Hart, 33, grew up in the Palmer Park area of Detroit. "A lot of the Motown people were living there," he says. "I literally grew up around Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Robert and Berry Gordy, because they would play golf with my dad at the Palmer Park golf course."

Hart's family--including a brother, sister and various other children who were taken into the family home on a temporary basis over the years--traveled and sang together, performing primarily gospel music.

Hart grew up immersed in African American culture. "As a kid, we grew up singing gospel in an all-black church in Detroit," he says. "We weren't allowed to listen to rock because we were so involved in gospel music, but we could listen to Motown. That was acceptable.

"We listened to Michael, Smokey, the Supremes," he continues. "They were musically everything that we identified with [and] that I wanted to grow up and be: Smokey had the coolest car, and all these guys dressed great."

When Hart was about 8, he developed asthma. This prompted his mother to move him and the other kids in her charge to L.A. while Hart's father remained in Detroit.

The move turned out to be useful not only for Hart's health but also for the family's music. "We lived here [in L.A., for a short while] and then we moved to Nashville for a record contract," Hart says.

Into adolescence, however, Hart's asthma continued to worsen, prompting another move, this time to the desert climate of Las Vegas. And it was from this base that Hart began, in his mid-20s, to make periodic forays to L.A.

Performing his songs at clubs and other venues, Hart began to build a reputation as a songwriter. In 1989 he moved to L.A. to pursue this career full-time. He also became interested in musical theater; in 1991, he wrote his first musical theater piece, "Spellcaster," followed by "A Tribute to Ginger Rogers." Neither has been produced.

"My family is so theatrical, making the transition [from songwriting to theater] was pretty easy," Hart says.

He staged his next attempt, "Larr!Bear!," in a workshop production at the 200-seat Cashman Theater in Las Vegas in 1992. The musical takes place in a toy store and, Hart says, is about "contemporary life and social issues with teddy bears as the metaphor: a Raggedy Ann doll who's homeless, an interracial marriage between teddy bears [whose] fur is a different color."

Then, in 1993, Hart decided to write another musical. "I was looking for a project to do, and it was maybe the lowest point in my life--and there have been many," he says.

This time, however, an odd coincidence pointed him toward writing an adaptation rather than an original work. "One day my mom calls and says, 'You should write a contemporary version of Cinderella,' " Hart recalls. "It's Mom talking to you, [so you say], 'Yeah, good idea,' click.

"Then I met up with somebody I hadn't seen [in a while] and, completely out of the blue, he says, 'You should write a version of Cinderella,' " he continues. "Then there was somebody that I was working part time for, and this person [also] says, 'You should write a contemporary black version of Cinderella.' So I took that as a signal."

Soon after Hart set to work on the project--"I started writing it, really, just to amuse myself," he says--he had lunch with producer Greenberg, with whom he had worked on a variety of projects since 1986.

"I told him that I had started writing this contemporary version of Cinderella," Hart says. "He said, 'Don't do anything with it, don't show it to anybody. Give me 30 days. I'm going to a new company, and this could be the perfect home for it.' "

Hart took in what Greenberg had to say, then went home and continued to write. "I never gave it a second thought," he says. "And 30 days later a call comes and Jerry has become the president of MJJ Music, which is Michael [Jackson's] record label at Sony."

MJJ gave Hart money to keep working on "Sisterella." "Originally, when MJJ brought it into development, I conceptualized it as a feature [film], possibly with Michael playing the role of the prince," he says. "Then, as it took on a life of its own, it became apparent to everybody that this was a theater piece first."

Last October, "Sisterella" was seen in a workshop production at Musical Theatre Works in New York. Following that, Hart returned home to L.A. to do "some tweaking and changes" on the piece before going into rehearsal in Pasadena in February.

And yet, as "Sisterella" now readies itself for opening night, Hart remains mindful of the Cinderella-like quality of his own ascent, not to mention the memory of his Van Nuys piano bar days.

"This whole thing has just moved so quickly," he says. "I'm afraid to breathe. I'm afraid to move. I just think it's going to blow up or something."

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"SISTERELLA," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Dates: Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (except next Sunday, 5 p.m. only). Through April 21. Prices: $13.50-$35.50. Phone: (800) 233-3123.

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