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The Neighborly Thing to Do

When songwriter Jeff Barry moved with his wife, Nancy, to Santa Barbara six years ago, he planned on taking it easy and raising their 6-year-old twins in a peaceful setting. He could afford to relax: In the ‘60s, Barry co-authored dozens of hits, including “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” “Doo Wah Diddy,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Sugar Sugar” “Iko, Iko” and “Chapel of Love.” He produced the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” After moving to Los Angeles in 1970, the Brooklyn-born tunesmith produced Neil Diamond’s first singles and later penned the theme song for TV’s “Family Ties.” That’s a lot of royalties.

But a couple of years ago, two neighbors lured the 63-year-old musician out of semi-retirement with their script about a dysfunctional medieval kingdom. Which explains why, during a recent interview, Barry found himself tenderly crooning a rueful ballad into the telephone:

“I’m a middle-aged woman in the Middle Ages and honey let me tell you, it’s a bad position/If life is like a battlefield and looks are my weapon, I’m running out of ammunition.”

Without much prompting, Barry segued into the KISS-inspired “Gratuitous Violence,” then assumed the role of a court jester to rattle off a Danny Kaye-like patter number called “I Am Entertainment.” They’re among the songs featured in “Knight Life,” a new musical comedy Barry has composed, with book and lyrics by former sitcom producers Robert Sternin and his wife, Prudence Fraser. “Knight Life” opens Friday in a Music Theater of Santa Barbara production.

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A few days earlier, Barry, Sternin and Fraser lunched at a Hollywood restaurant around the corner from the rehearsal hall where 21 actors were about to begin their first “Knight Life” run-through. It’s the same show biz-saturated neighborhood where Sternin and Fraser used to produce “Who’s the Boss?” and seems a more likely spawning ground for a cheeky musical than bucolic Santa Barbara.

Most of the young actors in “Knight Life” live and work primarily in Los Angeles, but Barry said the posh beach community teems with more established talent. Jeff Bridges, Rob Lowe, Dennis Franz, Dennis Miller, John Cleese, Kirk Douglas, Sigourney Weaver and Jane Seymour reportedly have homes in the Santa Barbara area. “What you have in Santa Barbara are a lot of people who are successful enough to be able to live up there, who think they’re going to relax, and who all eventually meet each other and become friends, and you have all this creative energy that never stops flowing, so the next thing you know the curtain’s going up March 15!”

That’s pretty much how it happened for the “Knight Life” collaborators. Barry met Sternin and Fraser three years ago at a fund-raiser in Santa Barbara. The couple moved north in 1994 while executive producing “The Nanny.” When the series ended in 1999, Sternin, 47, and Fraser, 48, decided to take a break to raise their 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

But Sternin had an idea that wouldn’t leave him alone. He’d pitched his first medieval comedy in 1982, three years after graduating from UCLA with a master’s degree in playwriting. In 1987, he and Fraser created “The Charmings,” a short-lived ABC sitcom featuring Snow White waking up in contemporary times, then wrote a Dark Ages comedy pilot for Fox in 1998. About two years ago, Sternin and Fraser decided to revisit the premise once more, this time as a musical comedy.

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Fraser and Sternin took turns describing the story: “It’s a silly comedy about a princess--she’s the first liberated woman--and a noble peasant named Sir Hansom Plotdevice who wants to be a knight. The man the princess marries will succeed the king--but the king’s conniving trophy wife and his sniveling nephew will do whatever they need to stop that from happening so they can come to power.”

Sternin sums up: “It’s about true love conquering all, ultimately, about good conquering evil. The fun of the show is that there are a lot of things that were invented 500 years ago, only nobody knew it.”

After agreeing to compose “Knight Life,” Barry promptly suggested that his collaborators incorporate onstage musician-actors into the story instead of using a traditional pit orchestra. The court minstrel, for example, discovers rock ‘n’ roll after his lute is electrified by a bolt of lightning during a storm.

Barry took far more time coming up with the music. Sternin and Fraser waited 11 months before hearing completed songs during a staged reading in November. Said Fraser, “He was hatching but not sharing.” Barry: “I was absorbing it!” Sternin: “We panicked a little.” Barry: “Well, yeah, there was a deadline push, but the longer you wait, the better it’s going to be. It’s an unconscious thing. All of a sudden the melodies start to come.

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“It’s like making a suit for somebody: You need to take the dimensions and get the feel of it, how it’s going to be used. It’s like the carpenter who came to our house said, ‘Measure twice, cut once,’” Barry continued. “I don’t like to rewrite. I like to get it all out the first time. And see, the way I created most of the songs is I would become the character on stage and just start singing. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

Barry tried his hand at a Broadway production in 1969, but “The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake” closed before it opened when its star pulled out at the last minute. "[It was about] this Park Avenue matron who goes to Greenwich Village in her pillbox hat to bring her niece back home, but instead she freaks out and becomes a hippie,” Barry said. “That was my last experience with creating for the stage. This one I hope will have a happier ending.”

Sternin and Fraser had never written lyrics before, which intrigued Barry. “Robert and Pru are wordsmiths, but what they create is not necessarily in the form of songs,” he said. “They just kind of wrote with a loose structure, and part of my challenge was to not necessarily mush it back into song form, but to create music that would work in this odd structure, because the whole show is a little out of the box--halfway between Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Our director, Michael Michetti, totally got the irreverence, but sometimes we had both feet out of the box and down the block, and he’d say, ‘That’s a little too far out there.’”

Michetti, a 1997 Ovation Award winner for directing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Stella Adler Theatre, came on board in December. Michetti, who also staged Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ production of “Titanic” and an Ovation-nominated Gold Coast Plays’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” said, “My first reaction to the material was clearly these were people who were at the top of their game but different games than musical theater. Their naivete about the form was an advantage in some ways because their sensibility is so quirky. But there were also things, based on my understanding of musical comedy, that needed to be reworked.”

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Under Michetti’s guidance, Sternin and Fraser restructured the piece, replacing the quiet ballad that initially opened the show with a big production number. And Barry, while casting the show, realized that some of his melodies needed to sound a little more like traditional show tunes.

“I wished I had videotaped the auditions,” he said. “I would have edited the last note of each song--they all end on this high note,” said Barry, throwing his arms out melodramatically. “They all ended that way, whereas I was writing more pop, where you come down on the end. So after days and days of auditions listening to hundreds of people, you go, ‘OK, at the end of the ballad, it can’t be ‘da da da.’ It has to be ‘da da DAAAHHH.

“That’s not the tail wagging the dog,” Barry concluded. “That’s adding the proper tail to the nutty dog. So that’s what I learned: Arms akimbo, high note.”

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“KNIGHT LIFE,” Granada Theater, 1216 State St., Santa Barbara. Dates: Opens Friday, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, 3 p.m.; Saturdays-

Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 24. Prices: $16.50-$58. Phone: (805) 966-2324.

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Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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