Composer puts show on U.S. road Pre-Broadway: For the first time in 25 years Andrew Lloyd Webber is premiering a new musical outside his native England. 'Whistle Down the Wind' comes to Washington this winter.

August 22, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A new $10 million Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, "Whistle Down the Wind," directed by Harold Prince, will premiere at Washington's National Theatre in December, the composer's producing company announced yesterday.

Based on a 1961 British movie that starred Hayley Mills and Alan Bates, "Whistle Down the Wind" is about a trio of children who discover an escaped convict, whom they believe to be Jesus Christ.

The nine-week, pre-Broadway Washington run will mark the first time Lloyd Webber has premiered a musical outside his native England since "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened on Broadway 25 years ago. The National Theatre engagement will begin previews on Dec. 6, open Dec. 12 and continue through Feb. 9. The Broadway opening is scheduled for April 17, at the Martin Beck Theatre.

The decision to debut "Whistle Down the Wind" in America was based primarily on the musical's setting, according to Edgar Dobie, president of Lloyd Webber's producing organization, the Really Useful Company.

Although the movie and its source, a novel by Mary Hayley Bell, were set in rural England in the 1930s, Lloyd Webber and his collaborators -- pop songwriter Jim Steinman, who is writing the lyrics, and screenwriter Patricia Knop, who is co-writing the book with the composer -- moved the story to rural Louisiana in the 1950s.

The composer felt the original Yorkshire setting would restrict the show musically, Dobie explained, and "also thought it was important to find a place in the world where you could believe such a story could be told and believed."

Lloyd Webber initially considered making "Whistle Down the Wind" as a movie musical. Turning it into a stage show, Dobie said, was largely influenced by the involvement of director Prince, who also directed Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." Two of Prince's previous shows played pre-Broadway runs in Baltimore -- "Roza" at Center Stage in 1986 and "Grind" at the Mechanic Theatre in 1985.

Though Prince is an acclaimed Broadway veteran with 20 Tony Awards to his credit, lyricist Steinman and co-author Knop are Broadway newcomers. Steinman, best known as the lyricist for the rock singer Meat Loaf, was originally asked to write the libretto for "Phantom," which he has said he turned down due to a previous recording obligation. Knop is the author of 40 screenplays, including "9 1/2 Weeks," "Wild Orchid" and "Red Show Diaries," which she co-wrote with her husband, Zalman King.

The other members of the creative team are all Broadway veterans -- choreographer Joey McKneely, who created the dances for "Smokey Joe's Cafe"; set designer Andrew Jackness, whose work has been seen, in addition to Broadway, at a host of regional theaters including Center Stage; costume designer Florence Klotz, a longtime Prince collaborator, who won her most recent Tony for "Show Boat"; and lighting designer Howell Binkley, whose Broadway credits include "How to Succeed in Business" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Dobie said the cast for "Whistle Down the Wind," which will include 11 children, will be announced in a few weeks.

Washington's National Theatre was selected for the Broadway tryout for several reasons, he explained. First, because there are only about a half-dozen American cities that can be the host of an extended run. Second, because the scale of the National suits the production and is comparable to that of the Martin Beck, the show's Broadway theater. And third, because "that whole region -- and I certainly include Baltimore as part of that region -- [has] a large sophisticated, theater-loving, musical-loving audience to draw on, and you learn from the audience."

The engagement should be a boon to the National, which has had only sporadic bookings in recent seasons and hasn't scheduled any other productions for the new season. "While we've been dark much of the last couple of years, this just feels right, and it couldn't happen at a better time," said Alma Viator, spokesman for the National. She said the set will be built in Washington and some of the rehearsals will take place there.

The announcement of the Martin Beck Theatre ends considerable speculation on where "Whistle Down the Wind" would land on Broadway. The problem stemmed from a current logjam of musicals, ironically due in part to three long-running Lloyd Webber shows, "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Sunset Boulevard."

Tickets for "Whistle Down the Wind" at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, range from $20 to $70 and go on sale at noon, Sept. 15. Call (800) 447-7400.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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