Composer, writer hop to it to set rabbit tale to music

December 21, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

It was the creative equivalent of a wind sprint: write a 50-minute musical with several dance numbers in three weeks.

The composer, Tom French, began each day at 9 o'clock in his Ellicott City home crafting lyrics, banging out tunes on a piano and singing songs across the telephone line to the scriptwriter, Carole Lehan.

Ms. Lehan, who lives in Columbia, would rise at 2 a.m. to write while her two young boys slept. She would finish six hours later when her husband left for work.

"This is a way to make a person psychotic," she thought.

But, in typical theater tradition, they finished the show before curtain time and everyone was happy, including the children. Since Dec. 1, more than 2,000 of them have turned out to catch the French-Lehan collaboration -- a musical adaptation of the children's story, "The Velveteen Rabbit."

The show runs through Jan. 5 at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

The story follows a toy rabbit who searches for purpose in life and longs to become real. While competing with other, more sophisticated toys for a little boy's affection, the rabbit learns that loving and being loved is a noble purpose.

The production numbers are a creative, eclectic lot. They include a pair of tap-dancing, vaudevillian bunnies, a goose-stepping British toy soldier and a gospel-singing fairy who wears braided hair and gold lame.

Judging from a packed house of several hundred children who laughed and clapped along during a performance last week, the show appears to be a hit.

"The Velveteen Rabbit" is the first children's musical Ms. Lehan has written. "I loved it," she said.

While writing scenes on her computer, she tried lines out on her boys, ages 4 and 6, to test for authenticity. She also listened carefully to their responses.

"I was able to steal some natural dialogue," she said.

Ms. Lehan, 33, grew up in Silver Spring. As a young girl, she worked in musical theater in Howard County with Toby Orenstein, the owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre.

She graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with a degree from the drama program, which her father chaired. Last year, she directed "Charlotte's Web." Last summer, she adapted the work of D. H. Lawrence to the stage.

For "The Velveteen Rabbit," she and Mr. French received the usual $1,000 to $5,000 flat fee for a children's show plus a percentage of the production's gross.

Mr. French, 29, moved to Howard County from upstate New York, where he grew up. Along the way, he got a degree in music education from Ithaca College and taught high school music in Syracuse.

His parents moved to Washington and, while visiting them four years ago, he auditioned for a show, got the part and stayed.

He soon grew tired of waiting tables to supplement his meager earnings as an actor. He also grew tired of bad scripts, so he decided to write a script of his own.

"I was doing this really bad play and I talked to the producer I was working for at the time and said, 'Oh, come on, anyone can write this stuff. Save some money and let me write one.' "

Since then, four of his shows have been produced, including a musical adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper" and the life of Thomas Edison. Some have been more difficult than others.

"The biography of Thomas Edison, a 15-minute musical," he said. "Go ahead, I challenge you to write that. I had a horrible time."

Mr. French, who writes his lyrics in longhand, says it has taken him some time to get used to seeing actors and directors interpret his work.

"When I first started being produced, I would go and see a show and I would put my head in my hand and say, 'That's not what I thought. That's not what I meant,' " he said. "I've finally come to the realization that it's never going to sound like what you hear in your head."

Still, he says, "It's really fun to watch people do your stuff."

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