A new musical from the 'Grease' guy Theater: Baltimore-born Kenneth Waissman took a show to Broadway 25 years ago, and tonight he ushers 'Street Corner Symphony' into the limelight.

November 24, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A quarter-century ago, a young Baltimore-born producer named Kenneth Waissman saw a musical at a small theater in Chicago and decided it might have a chance on Broadway.

The show was "Grease," and it became one of the biggest success stories in Broadway history, was made into a hit movie and, three years ago, was revived on Broadway, where it is still going strong.

Last winter, Waissman, 57, saw another musical at another small theater, this time in West Palm Beach, Fla., and he decided that it, too, belonged on Broadway. The new musical is a 1960s and 1970s pop and soul music revue called "Street Corner Symphony," and it opens at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre tonight.

A phenomenon like "Grease" probably only happens once in a producer's lifetime.

"No one connected with the show ever, ever could have imagined or predicted it would have this kind of longevity," says Waissman, adding that Paramount is expected to re-release the movie in March. "The fact that it would be as popular now as it was in the '70s startles all of us."

Though Waissman is quick to point out that "Street Corner Symphony" and "Grease" have little in common beyond their out-of-town origins and use of pop music, this season would appear to be a propitious time to produce a pop music revue on Broadway. Broadway's newest hit, "The Lion King," has a score by Elton John, and Paul Simon's "The Capeman" begins previews next month.

When Waissman saw "Street Corner Symphony" in Florida last March, he had what he describes as a strong visceral reaction to the show, whose three dozen Golden Oldies include such songs as "Respect," "American Pie" and "My Guy."

"I got totally carried away," he says.

After the show, he spent nearly three hours in a Palm Beach restaurant talking with the revue's creator, director and choreographer, Marion J. Caffey, who is making his Broadway debut.

The production that opens tonight differs from the Florida original in several respects. The cast of eight includes only three of the original actors; there's a new set and new orchestrations; and the intermission is gone. There's also a new budget -- $3.5 million, as opposed to $90,000 in Florida.

Broadway economics, Waissman admits, have changed considerably since he and Maxine Fox, his ex-wife and former co-producer, brought "Grease" to Broadway for $250,000. Waissman, who is back in New York after four years in California, had several Broadway successes after "Grease," including "Agnes of God," the Tony Award-winning "Torch Song Trilogy" and the South African "Asinamali" (whose list of co-producers included Simon).

But "Grease," which opened on Broadway in 1972, has become the stuff of legend -- launching the careers of stars including John Travolta and Marilu Henner, who were in supporting roles in the first touring production at the Mechanic Theatre and are among a number of "Grease" alums with whom Waissman stays in touch.

In Baltimore, one of the legends about "Grease" has long been that the show was based on Forest Park High School, the alma mater of both Waissman and his ex-wife. This legend was perpetuated in part because some of the photos decorating the Broadway production's proscenium arch came from Waissman and Fox's Forest Park yearbooks. But the proscenium also included photos from the Chicago yearbooks of co-authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, and it was their high school experiences that inspired the show.

Forest Park did influence the look of the production, however. Waissman points out that costume designer Carrie Fishbein Robbins was also a Forest Park grad, "So we had our own little shortcut language in discussing how the characters might look. When we were sitting with the authors and director, talking about different characters in the show, I could point them in the right direction by mentioning somebody we knew at Forest Park."

Waissman and Fox were the youngest producers on Broadway when they produced "Grease," and initially they had trouble being taken seriously. To attract scripts when they started out in 1969, they took out a full-page ad in Variety that read: "Can you use 2 producers with this WIDE experience?"

The ad wasn't the first time Waissman resorted to unconventional means to attract attention. When he was starting out in New York, he sent his resume to the great Broadway producer, director and playwright George Abbott. "I didn't get a response, so I took pinking sheers and cut the resume in half and attached a note that said, 'If you'd like to see the other half of me, I'm available at your convenience,' " he recalls. "I got the job."

Working as the late Abbott's assistant, Waissman says, "I got a chance to see how a musical comes together, how the material is developed, how all the entities work, what the tryout times were like. I learned how to listen to audiences, how one fixes a show. It has served me on every production."

He was reflecting on those lessons as recently as last week, when he oversaw the final changes in "Street Corner Symphony," which included cutting a few scenes and restaging the ending.

The new revue, he acknowledges, does have one other connection with his megahit, "Grease." "These songs were the current popular songs at the time 'Grease' opened," he says.

So maybe in 20 or 25 years, Kenneth Waissman will produce a show that takes a fond look at the popular music from the bygone era when he opened "Street Corner Symphony," back in 1997.

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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