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Revisiting of Romance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unlikely premise drives the musical comedy “Enter the Guardsman,” which has its West Coast premiere this week at the Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater.

The time and place: Central Europe before World War I.

The protagonists: a leading man and lady of the stage, just married.

The problem: The Actor, as he is called, senses the Actress’s affections are waning and wandering.

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The solution: He dons a dashing soldier’s garb, a foreign accent and some false facial hair and sets out to see if he can seduce her incognito, thereby testing her love and fidelity. She falls for the ruse. Or does she just play along?

The story, adapted from a 1910 comedy, “The Guardsman,” by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, is no more unlikely than the initial teaming of the musical’s three creators: Craig Bohmler, who did the music; Scott Wentworth, the book; and Marion Adler, the lyrics.

Unlikelier still is the way in which “Enter the Guardsman,” a virtually unknown work, has been making its way in the world--and literally around the world--since its 1997 premiere in London’s West End.

Like the show’s plot, the story of its creation begins with a pair of newlywed actors. Wentworth, ruggedly good-looking, tousle-haired American, and Adler, blond, pretty Canadian American, met as Shakespearean actors at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, where they were company members.

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Like the Actor and the Actress, this couple, within months of their nuptials, had a little problem: She had a job offer far away at the Banff Festival in the Canadian Rockies. Would the separation be a strain on their marriage?

Adler decided to take the gig in Banff; one of the reasons was she hoped to meet somebody new there with whom she could make beautiful music. A composer, that is--one willing to put melodies to lyrics she had written for a cabaret sketch she hoped to turn into a musical.

She was cast in the Brecht/Weill musical “Happy End” at Banff. She hit it off with her musical director, Bohmler, also a pianist and composer of operas. Would he take a look at her lyrics? Bohmler had heard this one before.

“I was very skeptical,” said the tall, graying yet boyish-looking composer. He and Wentworth, in town to shepherd the West Coast premiere, were clad in blue jeans and sneakers as they sat for an interview on the theater’s patio. “By and large, when somebody does that, it isn’t very good.”

Bohmler (pronounced “balm-ler”) and Adler adjourned to a piano, and in an hour they had set two of her lyrics to music. Their first piece, “Gunmetal Blues,” was on its way.

“I lay awake all that night and knew at that moment that my path had made a sharp turn,” said Bohmler, who found the actress’s writing strikingly poetic.

Lunt, Fontanne Did It First

Wentworth had been lukewarm to his wife’s idea of a musical homage to the noir-detective genre.

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“I’m a real private-eye buff, and I didn’t want to do it unless it was a pretty serious undertaking. There had been so many good parodies, everything from ‘My Favorite Brunette’ to ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.’ ” He was reluctant to retread that ground.

When his wife got back to Stratford with five finished songs, Wentworth saw the work was serious and signed on as librettist. “Gunmetal Blues” got good notices off-Broadway in 1992, and, Wentworth said, has gone on to more than 60 productions, including a 1999 West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.

But what would they do for an encore?

“Not being what I would call real writers, all of us having other jobs, other careers and other concerns, we didn’t really have a trunkful of ideas” on hand, Wentworth said.

So they read novels and plays and rented old movies, looking for a story to adapt.

Wentworth happened upon a biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, one of the stage’s most famous couples. Lunt and Fontanne’s breakthrough came in a celebrated 1924 production of “The Guardsman,” which they repeated in a 1931 film. (Two additional movies have been made from Molnar’s source material, “The Chocolate Soldier” and “Lily in Love.”)

The material hit home with Wentworth. For him, “Gunmetal Blues,” with its theme of romantic second chances, had reflected what he and Adler were going through as newlyweds, she having emerged from a divorce and he from a long-term relationship. Now they had been married five years, and the idea in “The Guardsman” of what it takes to keep a romantic flame burning as a marriage wears on provided a personal spark.

The elegant continental milieu also put Bohmler on familiar ground as a composer after he’d had to stretch for the jazzy blues of “Gunmetal Blues.”

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“I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t really known what a 12-bar blues was until “Gunmetal Blues,’ ” he said. But pre-World War I Viennese music was one of his special interests; it would be a natural to echo the period in the music for “Enter the Guardsman.”

Wentworth found Molnar’s original script “clunky” and saw openings for new inventions. He turned the story into more of a backstage show-biz tale and transformed the stage couple’s confidant, a critic in the original, into a playwright with writer’s block who uses the couple’s predicament as fodder for his next piece.

In 1996, Bohmler was serving as composer-in-residence at a summer music festival in Finland when his students alerted him to the Musical of the Year competition held annually in Denmark. He and his partners entered the book and demo recording of “Guardsman” and saw their show chosen the winner from among 400 entries. They got $60,000 and substantial play in the British press. (The contest is international, but entries must be in English.) The Donmar Warehouse Theatre, led by artistic director Sam Mendes (director of the current “Cabaret” revival and the film “American Beauty”), grabbed the property and gave it its world premiere in September 1997.

Cruising Along on QE2

Two years later, with Wentworth directing, “Guardsman” had its U.S. premiere at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, followed by a monthlong limited run off-Broadway last spring. “Inside, ‘Enter the Guardsman,’ a first-rate musical is struggling to get out,” opined the New York Times’ Lawrence Van Gelder, who found it “a modest, intermittently charming entertainment.”

Whatever is struggling to get out of the show, it certainly is getting around. Shelley M. Shier, president of Broadway Bound, a New York company formed to bird-dog promising new musicals and find unusual new venues for them, saw the show in New Jersey and booked it aboard one of the world’s most famous cruise ships.

Since May, an edited, 75-minute version of the two-hour “Guardsman” has been playing twice a week aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.

“It’s breaking ground on cruise ships” as an alternative to the more familiar pastiches of hits from established Broadway shows, said Marla Moran, spokeswoman for Cunard Line, operator of the 1,791-berth QE2. “The Guardsman” will sail the seas until mid-April 2001, by which time it will have been seen by as many as 80,000 passengers bound for destinations on every continent except Antarctica.

Producer Shier said the show’s wide appeal made it a good choice for launching the aboard-ship series of new musicals: “It’s a lovely show for young and old, an international audience, upscale sophisticates, or people who don’t know anything about theater,” she said.

In February, “Enter the Guardsman” will reach more uncharted territory: It is being mounted by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to run in repertory for 115 performances over eight months. Associate producer David Dreyfoos said that the theater rarely stages musicals and that doing a new, contemporary one is unprecedented.

Wentworth is delighted that nonprofit regional theaters such as the Oregon festival and the Laguna Playhouse--where he is directing, and playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle is starring as the Actor--are picking up the show. Barbara Passolt plays the Actress at the Playhouse.

He hopes that one of the most significant trends in the contemporary theater can be repeated: Just as regional theaters have become leading conduits for straight plays that move onto Broadway, perhaps they can also be nurturing grounds for new musicals.

With a cast of seven, a pit orchestra of six and no need for elaborate stage contraptions, “Enter the Guardsman” has the compact design to travel well without the multimillion-dollar budgets that Broadway musicals typically demand.

The Wentworth-Bohmler-Adler team is taking some time off for other projects before deciding what to do next. Wentworth specializes in directing classical plays, while Adler has been writing songs with Alan Menken lately for a musical adaptation of “The Big Street,” a 1942 film of a Damon Runyan show-biz tale. Bohmler’s latest work, “Mountain Days,” is a musical based on the life of environmentalist John Muir.

Wentworth sees “Enter the Guardsman” as a deliberately old-fashioned show in which the traditional elements actually make it stand out amid a trend toward edgy, serious musicals with pop-style scores.

“We thought we were writing a conservative little piece, but at the moment it seems to be more on the revolutionary side,” he said. “It’s not heavy and serious, Craig’s score is decidedly nonpop, and it’s about love and romance. It goes back to the things that the musical form used to be about.”

SHOW TIMES

“Enter the Guardsman.” Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Previews start Tuesday and include a special 2 p.m. matinee Thursday. Regular run starts Saturday, 7:30 p.m. only. Through Dec. 3. $24-$43. (949) 497-2787.


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