About three years ago, Ron Sproat, my writing partner on any number of shows, and Richard Engquist, who is an old pal from years of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop were having an after-theatre snack, bemoaning fresh ideas for new musicals. "Well," said Richard, "theres always "Abies Island Rose."
"Take the old chestnut," Richard continued, "but instead of Rose being an Irish colleen, she is a beautiful young woman from the islands. I see racially mixed couples in my neighborhood church every Sunday and I wonder about their histories." (Richard belongs to both a church and a synagogue since his wife is Jewish.)
I chimed in: "Base Abie on a doctor I know who couldnt get into Medical School in the states and went off the Caribbean for his education. Thats how Abie meets Rose."
Rone told us how his sister had eloped with a Portuguese painter (they are still happily married with grown children) and how the clash of cultures nearly caused a permanent estrangement between his parents and their daughter.
Richard often walks his dog, Max, through Brooklyns Prospect Park, and has observed practitioners of a hybrid Caribbean religion, part Catholic, part voodoo. We all started research and discovered several Afro-Caribe-Catholic amalgams whose deity is named Obatala. Roses dad would be a priest of Ositarius. Rose was based on a nurse who worked for the doctor cited above. All we needed was a mother for Abie. It was around this time that Secretary of State Madeline Allbright revealed her Jewish parentage and Madeline Feinman was born. Madeline Gilford, Jacks widow, also figured into our picture of the mother. More about her later.
We were off. A few obstacles. Both Richard and I are lyricists and had never written jointly before. Oh, and there was no composer.
Richard had written a number of shows with Doug Katsaros: a regional tour of "Dennis the Menace" as well as "Elizabeth and Essex", twice produced off-Broadway, initially with Estelle Parsons and revived with operas Evelyn Lear. Doug is currently is conducting "Footloose" on Broadway and has worked extensively with Cy Coleman on "The Life" and "Exactly Like You." When he read Rons completed libretto, he came aboard immediately. (There is a little passage of time here, but in terms of a musicals development, this one went like lightning)
After the four of us decided on song placement, Richard and I divvied up the lyrics, with the understanding that we could edit each other. Faxes started flying, answering machines started taking melodies and within a year, we did an initial reading at BMI, the performing rights organization, where Richard and I serve on the steering committee for the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. (All four of us were all fortunate enough to have studied with Lehman Engel; Richard now moderates the second year composer-lyricist workshop.)
At BMI, we worked with director John Znidarsic and subsequently with director Bick Goss for a reading at the Century Center for the Performing Arts. Ran Avni, Artistic Director of Jewish Repertory Theatre saw one of the readings as did Madeline Gilford, (half-model for our character, Madeline) who under her Gilford-Freeley Productions banner co-produced "The Food Chain" off-Broadway and "Band in Berlin" on Broadway.
When the Jewish Rep production gelled, Madeline came on board in the production end. Doug, who had a solid vision of the show, asked the three of us if he could direct the show, and the results thus far, have been thrilling. Heather MacRae, who had played Madeline for us in our initial reading, made herself available to repeat the role. Richard had seen Keith Lee Grant in "Marie Christine" and recommended him to casting director Stephanie Klapper. Stephanie and her associate, Susan Lovell discovered our two young leads, Steven Rosen for Abie and Carla Woods for Rose. Haila Strauss, who had choreographed Richards "Kuni-Leml", (twice a hit for Jewish Rep, and designated in "Best Plays of the Year" by Burns-Mantle) joined the team.
After our first read-through, Producer Avni and choreographer Strauss suggested second act changes which resulted in two new songs, one a replacement for a dream sequence and another, a new solo for Papa. I cannot overemphasize what an aid is it to writers to know the performers you are writing for. Both new songs were written during the first week of rehearsal, with Doug continuing his full time directing chores.
At this writing, we begin tech rehearsals in a matter of days. Jim Morgan, who is artistic director of the York Theatre is designing sets, his long time associate, Mary Jo Dondlinger, is designing the lights. The sound is in the capable ears of Randy Hansen and costumes are being designed by Daryl Stone, whose television credits include "Law and Order."
Thus far, "Abies Island Rose" has been one of the least tension filled productions of my career. As to whether we will extend beyond the May 21st JRT run, stay tuned
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