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Aida, Meet Elton

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

Midway through the first act of “Aida,” Disney’s new Broadway-bound musical trying out at Chicago’s Palace Theatre, the Egyptian princess Amneris hijacks the show and takes it on a flight of fancy.

After a rather intense introduction to Radames and his Nubian captive Aida--whom the Egyptian captain is bringing to Amneris, his betrothed, as a gift--the audience is whisked off to a palace spa where the pharaoh’s daughter bemoans her fate as a shallow clotheshorse in the song “My Strongest Suit.”

As the number proceeds, the bath setting yields to a gigantic grid of closets--featuring dresses, robes and shoes in every color--and finally to an outrageous Gianni Versace-like fashion show, replete with pumping house music and models who might well have leaped out of the latest issue of Vogue.

What does all this have to do with the ancient Egyptian legend best known for inspiring Giuseppe Verdi’s classic 19th century opera of the same name?

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The short answer? Elton John.

“Aida” is the pop composer’s first work created directly for the musical stage. And, in collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice, John has come up with a score that has cued director Robert Falls and designer Robert Crowley to raid John’s own life--and his closets--for inspiration. The show pays tribute here to his dear friend, the late Princess Diana, using her as a model for Amneris, a shallow woman who learns on her wedding night that her husband is actually in love with someone else, yet nevertheless grows to be a self-possessed queen. “My Strongest Suit” is also a homage to the peacock fashions of his other recently downed friend, Versace.

“This is a very personal score for Elton,” said Falls, sitting in the lobby of the theater the day after the show’s first preview here. “And very early on, Bob [Crowley] and I knew we wanted to approach the show in a way that was true to Elton. We’re trying to bridge this contemporary visual vocabulary as reflected in the score, with echoes of ancient Egypt, but keeping Elton’s world at the same time: Versace, high fashion, Princess Diana and love of outrageous clothes.”

In a phone interview from his home in London, John said that his intention simply was “to create the music for a very strong love story” between two people willing to die for love. Nevertheless, he called Versace his greatest inspiration in art, music and fashion for the past 10 years. “I played the songs of ‘Aida’ for Gianni,” John recalled. “And he roared with laughter when he heard ‘My Strongest Suit.’ That’s been the most awful thing in my life, losing someone that inspiring.”

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Fusing pop-culture camp, star-crossed interracial love between slave and enslaver and cutthroat political intrigue into a cohesive whole is the challenge facing Falls and his team on “Aida,” Disney’s fourth stage musical since taking on a Broadway presence with “Beauty and the Beast” in 1994. Generating near-impossible expectations is the fact that this show is Disney’s follow-up to the phenomenal success of avant-garde director Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King.” And raising the stakes even more, “Aida” does not have the proven pedigree of having been an animated feature hit first, like “Beauty,” “Lion King” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the last of which premiered in Berlin in June.

However, it has had five years in development, and by Thursday, when the show officially opens its run in Chicago before a New York bow scheduled for March 23, it will have been nurtured, tweaked, scrutinized and overhauled, with a series of workshops, the release of a concept album featuring major pop stars, and a regional premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre last year. Never mind that the album has drawn moribund sales (170,000 copies sold since March) and the Atlanta foray drew enough criticism that many of the original creative team were dismissed and a new group, led by Falls, had to be brought in.

Throughout those years, “Aida” has always been dominated by the ever brilliant, if mercurial, John. From the start “Aida” has been his baby.

In 1994, Disney optioned a children’s book by Leontyne Price, based on the Verdi opera, for development as an animated feature. But John was not keen on working on another animation project after “The Lion King,” the stage adaptation of which he considers Taymor’s work. When Disney executives suggested a Broadway musical of “Aida” instead, he and “Lion King” collaborator Rice, who is also the veteran lyricist of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” and “Chess,” immediately signed on, despite some misgivings. “A lot of opera people can be very elitist, so we thought we’d be killed for even trying,” John said.

But that made the prospect even more challenging. “We wanted to make it as different as possible from Verdi, not have it all gloom and doom, and we wanted dialogue, not have it sung all the way through. That would have made it much more operatic.”

Peter Schneider, who with his partner Tom Schumacher heads Disney Theatricals, felt that the fit of John with Verdi was not much of a stretch. The 19th century Italian was, like John, a popular composer of his day.

“The man on the street sang the songs from ‘Aida,’ ” Schumacher said. “Our version echoes that in terms of popular entertainment. We felt that the story was very sophisticated and that it deserved a stronger context [than in an animated film].”

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The legend of Aida had been around for centuries when Egyptologist Mariette Bey resurrected the story for Verdi’s 1871 opera. In the Disney retelling, Radames returns with slaves from a plundering of Nubia, among them Aida. Unbeknownst to him, she is a princess, a rallying point for her people, who are choking under the strong arm of the Egyptian empire and soon to be ruled by Amneris, daughter of the pharaoh, and her betrothed, Radames. Hanging in the balance in the illicit relationship between the white Radames and the black Aida is nothing less than life and death, power and wealth, love for another person pitted against loyalty to family and country.

The score John and Rice delivered was eclectic from the first, ranging from the campy “Strongest Suit” to the ethereal “Written in the Stars” to the gospel-tinged “The Gods Love Nubia.” And once written, it was pretty much set. Unlike most seasoned Broadway songwriters who have to undergo heavy revisions, particularly during tryouts, since the Atlanta workshop last year, one song has been cut and one added. Rice has been actively involved in rehearsals and previews for the show, changing lyrics, but John has been elusive for the most part, largely due to the demands of a heavy concert schedule.

“I’ll admit that no one else has done a production the same way that we have, but there is not just one way that composers work,” said Schumacher, when asked if John’s limited presence has hamstrung the show’s development.

“I talk to Elton all the time about the show, and while it’s an untraditional way of working, we’re getting so much from him.”

Perhaps more problematic has been the quest to find the right balance between serious themes and playful anachronistic elements of this musical, which cross-cuts from a rebellious slave camp to a pouting princess; from Radames’ Machiavellian father to his servant, who seems to have bounded straight from an animation cell.

That task first fell to the Atlanta team of director Robert Jess Roth, book writer Linda Woolverton and designer Stan Meyer, veterans of the stage production of “Beauty and the Beast.” But while their version of the show was not completely dismissed, critics carped that the production was too fluffy and cartoonish to achieve its weighty aims. “In both tone and plot, [“Aida”] hews quite closely to the company’s formula for toon tuners,” wrote Charles Isherwood in Variety. “These Egyptians sound just like post-adolescents from today’s hot-blooded TV dramas.”

“To tell you the truth, I was quite happy with the show in Atlanta,” John said. “But I have to take my hats off to Disney. They realized there was something wrong and were prepared to shut down the production. They realized when you do something like ‘Aida,’ you have to be more earnest. It can’t be too broad or campy.”

Schneider and Schumacher turned to Falls and Crowley, both of whom were already at work on other Disney projects. (Falls is adapting Barry Levinson’s “Tin Men” into a stage musical, and Crowley worked for them on a project, now shelved, about magic and illusions, entitled “The Invisibility Project.”) Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s prestigious nonprofit Goodman Theatre, has been involved with more than 100 productions, and last season walked away with a Tony for his revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of Salesman,” starring Brian Dennehy. But though Falls has directed numerous classic dramas and operas, the director’s experience in musical theater is distinctly limited, raising questions about his ability to pull off such a highly anticipated undertaking.

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“We felt that staging ‘Aida’ was in the zone of staging a classic drama for contemporary audiences,” said Schneider, “and Bob seemed a good choice. He was smart, we knew him and he came into the room with very specific ideas: how Radames and Aida meet, what attracts them to each other, how they find each other and who they are. What took Verdi an hour and half, we do in 10 minutes.”

“I felt that Radames had to be rough and darker,” said the director. “They had to meet in a very strong, almost erotic way, which is how life works, I think. Most men finally meet a strong woman who sort of makes them shape up, and the man sort of has to rise to the larger spiritual qualities of the woman and prove himself. That was inherent in the love between Radames and Aida.”

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In this version, Amneris proves to be a rather sympathetic character and ally to the couple, in contrast to the Verdi opera, in which she is the evil opposition. For Falls, the doomed triangle was the touchstone for the musical, no matter what wild detours it might take. As long as he kept that in focus, the director said, he has the same free reign that had been afforded Taymor in her daring conceptualization of “The Lion King.”

“It’s really a very intimate epic, which distinguishes it, I think, from all those other Disney musicals,” said Falls of “Aida.” “It’s about those three people, and it has to be delivered by them in an old-fashioned star kind of way.”

By the time Falls became involved, Heather Headley (“The Lion King”) and Sherie Rene Scott already were cast, having been in the Atlanta production and among the all-star cast featured in the concept album. For the show’s Radames, Falls actively sought out Adam Pascal, creator of the role of Roger in “Rent,” convinced that Pascal’s vocal power would get across the rock anthems while still having the requisite tenderness for the ballads. “The three of them are young, sexy and gorgeous, and there is sort of an offbeat presence that isn’t traditional Broadway,” Falls said.

To probe the darker hues of a story of a enslaver in love with his slave, Falls recruited David Henry Hwang, Tony-winning author of “M. Butterfly,” for help on revising Woolverton’s book. In fact, it was Hwang’s comic play “Bondage,” about an interracial couple in an S&M; parlor in the San Fernando Valley, that convinced Falls that Hwang understood the complex sexual politics that affect “Aida.”

Hwang had just taken a primer in book writing, working on revisions for an upcoming revival of “Flower Drum Song.” But he felt that he could also contribute to establishing the eclectic tone of “Aida” because of his take on anachronistic language and cross-cultural collisions in such plays as “Golden Child"--about the arrival of a white missionary to a village in turn-of-the-century China.

“Bob was very clear from the beginning that there was a political dimension to the story which was very important,” Hwang said. “Can love overcome differences, hatred, a painful history between peoples? It’s a question with very obvious resonance today. But it’s a complex question that does not have a clear yes-or-no answer.

“And we wanted to treat the subject with a certain amount of complexity and subtlety.”

Through his sets and costumes, Crowley is meant to act as a facilitator for the emotional jumps in “Aida,” the fluid juxtaposition of cultures, times and places. Indeed there are few designers as protean as the Irish-born Crowley, who spent decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company before winning acclaim and honors for his designs for the recent revival of “Carousel” and “The Iceman Cometh,” among many others.

Now based in London, Crowley said he drew his inspiration for “Aida” from sources as disparate as the brooding colors of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko to a photograph of a Corbusier window, to Napoleonic architectural drawings of the Egyptian pyramids, to a 19th century Indian military costume he spotted at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The latter led him to dress Radames and some of his military cohorts in high collars and long bright-red skirts. The only thing not likely to show up in “Aida” is any hint of a pyramid, with the exception of a laser triangle framing Radames, Aida and Amneris at the beginning of the second act.

“There is just no linear way of looking at things today; modern life is such a bombardment of imagery of the past, present and future that there’s simply no way to compartmentalize it,” Crowley said. “You look at these amazing architectural drawings of the inside of a pyramid and it looks like a contemporary American skyscraper. It’s in the ether; you just have to be open to things.”

An epiphany occurred when Crowley went home to his native Cork with the CD of the concept album for “Aida.” He began to play it, and when the Spice Girls began their rendition of “My Strongest Suit,” his 8-year-old niece, Katie Curtin, immediately started vogue-ing across the room to the song. “She drove us all crazy,” recalled the designer. She pulled the covers off the sofa and started dressing herself up, and she must’ve played it 50 times. She just wouldn’t stop doing fashion shows to it.

“But that’s Elton’s music for you,” Crowley continued. “I find something both playful and touching about him, this man who’s had his life played out in the tabloids. We’ve all heard the stories, the alcohol abuse, the personal losses, the triumphs. There’s a terrific BBC-TV documentary about him, aptly named ‘Tantrums and Tiaras.’ But I find it all wild, mad, crazy and very moving, as well.”

While John downplayed the personal angle of “Aida,” he admits that its songs and themes are a reflection of where he finds himself emotionally right now--clean and sober for nine years, involved with a male lover for three.

“Participating in this fantastic adventure is something that my life has given me for getting straight again,” he said. “I’m very happy right now. Old problems keep coming up, health scares, people dying, management problems. But I’ve learned to deal with them. It’s taken a lot of energy. But I’ve never had a better time. And I’ve never learned so much.”

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“Aida” opens Thursday and continues through Jan. 9 at the Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Ticketmaster: (312) 902-1500 or https://www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets go on sale today for the March 23 opening of “Aida” at the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, New York. Ticketmaster: (212) 307-4747.


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