A Grand Experiment Broadway-bound: 16 years after idea was born, 'Jekyll & Hyde' at last seems headed for big lights of New York.

March 17, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It has spawned two record albums, several hit songs, a World Wide Web site and a 35-city national tour. Tickets have been scalped for 10 times their face value. Audience members have shown up waving banners and wearing costumes, and during the show some have even fainted.

But despite all this hoopla, the musical "Jekyll & Hyde" has had one of the longest and most unusual evolutions in pre-Broadway history. More than 16 years after the idea for the show dawned on composer Frank Wildhorn, the musical is finally approaching the Broadway finish line.

Well, almost. "Jekyll & Hyde" was originally scheduled to open on Broadway immediately after its two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre, which begins March 26. Now its Broadway debut has been delayed until fall.

At this point, its creators pop music composer Wildhorn and librettist Leslie Bricusse, a Broadway and Hollywood veteran are accustomed to waiting. They're even looking forward to an extra six months for refinements, rewrites and major design changes.

And after all, what's six more months when you've been waiting 16 years? This is an extremely long haul even these days, when mounting a musical on Broadway is more difficult and costlier than ever. Fewer and fewer shows can afford the time-honored practice of out-of-town tryouts. Instead, many musicals have lengthy preview periods in New York. When a show does begin out of town, it usually plays only one or two cities. Or, as is increasingly the case, it may begin at a regional theater and attract the attention of commercial producers, who move it to Broadway within a season or two.

In contrast, "Jekyll & Hyde's" origins date back to 1979, when Wildhorn, then an undergraduate history major at the University of Southern California, saw the Broadway production of "Dracula" starring Frank Langella.

"I loved the fact that they took the Gothic literature and did a really highly stylized, sexy, modern production that was hip and wasn't just another interpretation of a classic," he says.

Together with another student, Steve Cuden, Wildhorn decided to create a sexy, modern, hip, Gothic musical. As their source, they chose Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

The first line written for that musical was: "The only thing constant is change." Appropriately for a show that has gone through so many permutations, the line remains in the text to this day.

Titled "Jekyll & Hyde," this college musical received a staged reading at USC, after which it was consigned to a drawer while Wildhorn pursued a highly successful career as a pop songwriter, composing, among other top 10 hits, Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" in 1988.

He and Cuden went their separate ways, but Wildhorn never forgot "Jekyll & Hyde" or his interest in the theater. "I had a nice run with the pop stuff. Whitney Houston sold 16 million records. That bought me the financial freedom to go back to what I wanted to do, which was theater," he says.

Six years ago, a theatrical producer Wildhorn had met through his pop music career gave the demo tape of "Jekyll & Hyde" to Bricusse, a two-time Academy Award winner whose Broadway credits include "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" and "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd" (both with Anthony Newley) and this season's "Victor/Victoria."

"The first thing that attracted me to it [was] the realization that nobody had ever made a musical of it," Bricusse says of Stevenson's 1886 novella, which has been adapted repeatedly for the stage and made into dozens of movies.

He was also struck by Wildhorn's contemporary-sounding music, which combined "a powerful gift of melody and a romantic, theatrical approach to the music."

'Back to square one'

When it came to the plot, however, "We went back to square one. I felt it had no correct structure dramatically," Bricusse says. "Since the original Robert Louis Stevenson book is such a tiny novella, you can, in fact, do what you want, as all the film versions prove."

The college script was about a Jack the Ripper-style Hyde who murders prostitutes. Bricusse scrapped that idea and made Hyde "the judge and jury," taking revenge on Jekyll's enemies, specifically, the board of governors at Dr. Jekyll's hospital, who refuse to let him continue his experiments, which leads him to experiment on himself.

Bricusse also enhanced the romantic angle. Women are virtually nonexistent in the Stevenson novella, but in the musical the protagonist has two love interests Lisa, Jekyll's fiancee, and a woman of ill repute named Lucy.

These women, Wildhorn points out, also reinforce the show'stheme that "there are two sides to all of us. Lucy and Lisa could have been the same person, except for fate." The show's creators considered having one actress play both parts, just as one actor plays both Jekyll and Hyde. But in the end, Bricusse says, "We thought that was a little too smart."

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