'Dangerous Beauty' creators marry Renaissance with rock 'n' roll

Amanda McBroom went to the movies one day and came home with an idea for a show.

"I fell in love with this film called 'Dangerous Beauty,'" says the singer-songwriter. "It was about Veronica Franco, a 16th century Venetian courtesan-poet-superstar. I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is a musical.'"

McBroom's longtime collaborator, composer Michele Brourman, agreed, listing its rich possibilities: "Depth of emotion, religion, politics, and this tapestry of time and place. There's a love story. And turmoil. And it's very sexy. I knew it would be fun to write."

The musical "Dangerous Beauty" opens Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse in a world-premiere professional production — the first new work mounted by the theater since it emerged from bankruptcy last year. The stage version attempts to reach beyond the grand romance of the 1998 film with what its creators call "a Renaissance-meets-rock mix" that marries history and politics with the passion of a heroine whose wit and charms were matched by her determination to stay true to her beliefs.

"Veronica was a complex character living in a complex time," says Sheryl Kaller, who is directing the show, which stars Jenny Powers and features music by Brourman, lyrics by McBroom and a book by Jeannine Dominy. "Figuring out the right way to tell her story requires a tricky balance."

The musical, like the movie, was inspired by the 1992 book "The Honest Courtesan" by University of Southern California professor Margaret F. Rosenthal. Dominy — who also wrote the screenplay — blended facts from Franco's life and fiction to craft a tale about an independent-minded woman who, after her family lost its fortune, saw her new trade as her best chance at making her way in a man's world.

Venetian courtesans were educated, traveled in elite circles and were allowed to do such things as visit libraries and salons — pursuits that were usually off-limits to sheltered gentlemen's wives, many of whom were trapped in arranged marriages.

"Veronica became the queen of the courtesans, which pretty much meant she was the queen of Venice," says McBroom, who is best known for writing the hit Bette Midler song "The Rose."

Franco's skill at verse and seduction brought fame and influence but did not shield her from heartbreak and peril, especially when the city was threatened by the plague, war with the Turks and the Inquisition.

The New Regency/Warner Bros. movie, which starred Catherine McCormack as Franco and Rufus Sewell as her lover, Marco Venier, received mixed reviews but developed a cult following. Dominy says the finished product was "happier and more Hollywood" than she would have liked. In fact, she says that as changes were made to the script, "I used to joke that I was afraid it was going to be turned into a musical."

When McBroom invited her to help do just that, Dominy thought "the universe was playing a wicked joke on me." But she decided that "it was better that I do it than someone else, so I said, 'yes.'"

At first, the New York writer, working on her first musical, wondered how things would go. "Sweet, lovely Amanda was enamored of the film, wanting to make something romantic, and I was like Darth Vader and wanted to write the book with the teeth back in. But everything worked out wonderfully." They have, she says, managed to keep the heart and restore the harder edges. "Who would believe it? A musical has let us go much more to the political and the feminist and be more honest than the movie," Dominy says.

The show has moved further away from the film for other reasons as well. "When you fall in love with a movie you say, 'Oh, we're going to musicalize it,'" Brourman says. "But then you realize that won't work." The Venice, Calif.-based Brourman and the Ojai-based McBroom have each written for the theater and collaborated on more than a dozen animated features, but this is the first complete stage score they've done together. "You have to make this its own entity," Brourman says. "We also found we couldn't always do what was done on camera. For instance, your understanding of any character has to be far greater than in a movie because you can't use things like close-ups."

Brourman, Dominy and McBroom put on an abbreviated version of "Dangerous Beauty" at the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles in 2004. The next year, Kaller joined the team at the suggestion of producer Susan Dietz, who McBroom says "got the ball rolling on this project." Kaller has directed the piece ever since, starting with a reading at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. Development continued in New York and at the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University.

"We keep learning," Kaller says. "Since Northwestern, we've made a ridiculous amount of changes. It's like a different play. Michele and Amanda have easily written five or six new songs. We've replaced the opening and restructured the second act."

Her colleagues credit Kaller — who was nominated for a 2010 Tony for directing the play "Next Fall" — with making the show sharper and smarter and the storytelling more specific and theatrical. "She's not afraid of taking big steps," McBroom says, "which you need because you can't be cautious with something like this."

With the aid of her designers, Kaller has tried to evoke the intimacy and intrigue of Venetian society. Scenes flow into scenes. Soyon An's costumes enable courtesans to change into wives onstage. "The audience won't know where I end and Benoit begins," Kaller says, referring to choreographer Benoit-Swan Pouffer, artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.

One big breakthrough, Kaller says, was "identifying the sound of this music, by which I mean keeping one foot in the Renaissance and one in rock 'n' roll" with Brourman's score and AnnMarie Milazzo's vocal arrangements.

The intricate staging would be for naught, she adds, without actors who can "flesh out complicated characters." Most important was finding someone who could play an uncommon heroine like Franco. "Jenny walked into an audition in New York five years ago and I said, 'That's Veronica,'" Kaller recalls. Powers (Broadway's "Grease" and "Little Women") is being joined by a cast that includes James Snyder, Bryce Ryness, Laila Robins, Tony winner Michael Rupert and Megan McGinnis.

Kaller had suggested opening "Dangerous Beauty" in Pasadena after she saw another musical there in 2008 with Dietz, a former Playhouse artistic director. Current artistic director Sheldon Epps had known about the show through Dietz and when his theater emerged from bankruptcy, the opportunity arose to bring the production to the playhouse.

To Epps, presenting "Dangerous Beauty" is the perfect way to celebrate the new life of his theater, whose mainstage opened in the fall after being dark since last February. "This gets us back to a standard and scale of work that has not been on our stage for months. And it returns us to one of the most valuable things we do, which is to develop and mount new works."

"Given our commitment to diversity," says Epps, "it's also of great interest that this musical has so many women in key roles" — including its director, creators, star, "Honest Courtesan" writer Rosenthal and producers Dietz and Tara Smith.

"It never came up that we wanted all women to work on this play," Brourman says. "Amanda and I were going to do it and we talked to Jeannine, who had written the screenplay, and Suzi knew Sheryl from another project. It was skill and affinity for each other and the piece, not gender."

There are hopes that "Dangerous Beauty" will join the list of shows that have appeared in Pasadena en route to Broadway. "Sister Act" and "Baby It's You!" are set to open there this year and, "Unchain My Heart, the Ray Charles Musical" is "aiming for an opening in the fall," Epps says.

More than a decade after McBroom saw "Dangerous Beauty" on the screen, she says seeing it on the playhouse stage is "miraculous and thrilling."

"It's been a long journey," McBroom says. "And with luck it's not over yet."

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