Small show aims for big win Premiere: 'Triumph of Love,' based on an old French comedy, is making its musical bow at Center Stage.

November 24, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Turning a semi-obscure 18th-century French comedy into a musical might sound like a long shot. But from the moment

producer Margo Lion and director Michael Mayer thought of basing a musical on Marivaux's "Triumph of Love," they felt sure it would fly.

So much so that in just 2 1/2 years -- relatively fast in musical theater terms -- the show has become a reality and is making its world premiere at Center Stage, where it opens Wednesday. From here it moves to the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, and then, if "Triumph" truly triumphs, to New York.

The producer and director were on an airplane when inspiration struck. The idea, however, didn't spring up out of the blue. Lion, the Baltimore-born co-producer of "Angels in America," was flying to Chicago with Mayer to audition actors for "Angels' " national tour. But she couldn't stop thinking about Mayer's most recent production -- a revival of "Triumph of Love" at New York's Classic Stage Company.

L "I just loved it. I thought it was hilarious," Lion recalls.

Baltimore audiences are already familiar with this nonmusical version, which was translated by James Magruder, resident dramaturg at Center Stage, and produced there in 1993. Magruder also wrote the book for the musical; the music is by Jeffrey Stock, a 30-year-old composer working on his first major musical; and the lyrics are by Broadway veteran Susan Birkenhead, who received a Tony nomination for "Jelly's Last Jam."

For Center Stage, which is co-producing the musical with Yale Rep, "Triumph" is a substantial undertaking, though not out of line with musicals it has produced in the past, such as "Das Barbecu" and "Roza." The budget is $650,000, but that figure is shared by Center Stage and Yale and includes $75,000 raised by Lion from investors including two of Broadway's chief producing organizations -- the Shuberts and Jujamcyn.

The cast is headed by three former Tony nominees: Susan Egan, who created the role of Belle in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"; Robert LuPone, who created the role of Zack in "A Chorus Line"; and Mary Beth Peil, who co-starred opposite Yul Brynner in his final Broadway revival of "The King and I."

By Broadway standards, "Triumph of Love" is small-scale -- a cast of seven, no chorus and only one set. But it's a big deal for a regional theater, and it's definitely a big deal for the creative team that has made this romantic musical comedy a labor of love.

It's also fairly rare for a musical to be fashioned from a work of classic dramatic literature, especially since, unlike the few obvious examples -- "West Side Story," based on "Romeo and Juliet," or "My Fair Lady," based on "Pygmalion" -- "Triumph of Love" does not have a well-known plot.

Impediments to love

The gist of that plot is this: A princess in ancient Greece falls in love at first sight with a young man named Agis, who turns out to be the rightful heir to the kingdom that was usurped by the princess' family. That, however, isn't the only potential impediment to romance. Agis has been raised by his philosopher uncle and aunt, who have taught him to eschew emotion in favor of pure reason.

For Lion, who is working in her hometown for the first time, there were essentially three reasons the Marivaux play seemed a good source for a musical, beginning with its plot. "It's a morality play, slash fable," she explains. "Those stories that have very broad brush strokes in terms of story are the best source material for musicals."

The second reason is its emotional content, which she describes as "deeply moving and sophisticated" -- qualities well suited to song.

Mayer felt so strongly about this that when he directed the nonmusical version at the Classic Stage Company he included a cello, harp and mandolin on stage and opened the second act with the cast singing Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" -- all strong indications of the show's musical theater potential.


Lion's third reason is the character of the gender-bending princess. "I loved the idea of a female character who sets out to achieve something and isn't going to let anything get in her way," Lion says.

Lyricist Birkenhead was also drawn to the strong female protagonist and based the show's opening song, "Anything," on the character's determination to "do anything for love." It's a song that "kind of wrote itself," she says, adding, "I loved the fact that the heroine is very smart, and she has a great sense of what will get under people's skin."

Indeed, there is virtually a trend of musicals with strong, manipulative heroines -- "Evita," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Victor/Victoria." But "Triumph of Love's" creative team made a concerted effort to make the princess -- whose tactics, at various points, include disguising her sex -- more sympathetic. They've done this not only by altering how much the princess knows and when she knows it, but also by giving her a song -- "What Have I Done?" -- acknowledging that her tactics have hurt people.

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